The Hague, Netherlands The world court ruled Wednesday that the United States violated the rights of 51 Mexicans on death row to receive diplomatic help, and it ordered Washington to review their cases.
The ruling by the International Court of Justice could mean a reprieve or another chance of appeal for the inmates, including one scheduled to die May 18 in Oklahoma. It also could have implications for other foreign citizens in U.S. prisons who were not told they could receive help from their governments.
The order raised questions from the eight states holding the inmates but no assurances that the states would try to address the court's concerns.
Some states were seeking advice Wednesday from the U.S. State Department, but several officials said they doubted the ruling would affect their execution plans. Officials in Oklahoma and Texas, where three of the Mexican inmates are on death row, said no immediate action was being taken in those cases.
"I don't see the world court as being the same as the U.S. Supreme Court, where we'd immediately have to jump and say we'll do it," said Nevada Deputy Atty. Gen. Dave Neidert.
Texas officials also downplayed the World Court ruling.
"These individuals have been duly tried or are in the process of being duly tried," said Texas Atty. Gen. Spokesman Paco Felici. "We don't believe the World Court has standing."
U.S. officials will study the decision carefully, said State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, adding that the United States has tried to comply with the requirement that consular access be granted to Mexican and other citizens detained on U.S. soil.
It was the second time the highest U.N. court has ruled the United States broke the 1963 Vienna Convention, which protects foreigners accused of serious crimes. In 2001, Arizona ignored a court order to stay the execution of a German citizen.
Although the court dealt specifically with the cases of 52 Mexicans, it cautioned the principle should apply to all foreigners imprisoned for serious crimes. There are 121 foreign citizens on U.S. death row, 55 of whom are Mexican, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
It would be wrong to assume the court's conclusions "in the present judgment do not apply to other foreign nationals finding themselves in similar situations in the United States," said the ruling by a 15-member panel.
"The U.S. should provide by means of its own choosing meaningful review of the conviction and sentence" of the Mexicans, presiding judge Shi Jiuyong said.
Shi said the review, in all but three cases, could be carried out under the normal appeals process in the United States.
Arturo Dager, a legal adviser with Mexico's Foreign Relations Department, said the court's findings were "a triumph of international law."
"Mexico was not vindicated. The rule of international law was vindicated. Of course we are confident the United States will fully comply with the ruling," added Mexican Ambassador Juan Gomez Robledo.
For the three defendants who have exhausted all appeals, the United States should make an exception and review their cases one last time, the court said.
If the United States doesn't abide by the ruling, Mexico intends to take further legal steps, according to a Mexican diplomat. Countries that fail to comply with court rulings can be referred to the U.N. Security Council for "appropriate action," according to the court's statute.