Editor's note: This story has been updated with the news of Cárdenas' execution.
Texas executed a Mexican national late Wednesday night despite a flurry of last-minute appeals and objections from his native country and United Nations human rights experts.
Death row inmate Ruben Cárdenas had several appeals pending before the U.S. Supreme Court when the scheduled time of his execution — 6 p.m. — rolled around. The high court denied all appeals almost four hours later, setting his execution into process.
In his final words, Cárdenas thanked his family, friends, attorneys and the Mexican government for their help.
“I will not and cannot apologize for someone else’s crime, but, I will be back for justice! You can count on that!” he said.
Cárdenas, 47, was injected with a lethal dose of pentobarbital and pronounced dead at 10:26 p.m.
He was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1997 Edinburg murder of his 16-year-old cousin, Mayra Laguna. After hours of interrogation, Cárdenas confessed that he snuck into his cousin’s room through an open window early on a February morning and then kidnapped, raped and killed her before leaving her body near a canal, according to court records.
"After 21 years of waiting, justice was finally served," said Laguna's sister, Roxana Jones, in a statement after the execution. "Words can't begin describe the relief it feels to know that there is true peace after so much pain and sorrow….Mayra can be remembered as loving, caring, funny and dimples when she smiled. She will continue to watch over family and friends."
There was an international push to stop his execution because Cárdenas, was never given the chance to speak to his country’s consulate after his arrest more than 20 years ago, a violation of an international treaty. Cárdenas also was not provided a lawyer until 11 days after his arrest, and his representatives claimed evidence against him was faulty and his confession was coerced.
“If the scheduled execution of Mr. Cárdenas goes ahead, the US Government will have implemented a death penalty without complying with international human rights standards,” said Agnes Callamard and Elina Steinerte, independent experts with the U.N.’s Human Rights system, in a news release Monday.
Under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, all arrestees from a foreign country must be told they can notify their consulate and receive regular consultation from them during their detention. In 2004, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that the U.S. violated this treaty with more than 50 Mexican nationals on death row, including Cárdenas. A ruling ordered that all the cases should be reconsidered before execution.
But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that even though the treaty created obligations for the federal government, it didn’t force anything on the states, according to a federal appellate court’s ruling denying Cárdenas’ appeal on the consulate violation.
“ICJ decisions do not become domestic law absent a Congressional enactment,” the order said.
The Mexican government still says the violation is “illegal,” according to a Reuters report.
On Monday, the country’s deputy foreign minister for North America, Carlos Sada, told reporters that Texas prosecutors didn’t follow due process and that his country is looking to stay the execution. Hours before the execution was set to begin, the Mexican Senate urged President Enrique Peña Nieto to call on Texas officials to stop the execution. Mexico does not have the death penalty.
In recent appeals filed in state courts, Cárdenas' legal team said bad practices in eyewitness identifications, DNA evidence and confessions led to Cárdenas’ conviction.
“To permit Mr. Cardenas’s conviction to stand without further examination and testing would undermine Texas’s commitment to addressing the epidemic of wrongful convictions, and would facilitate the execution of a potentially innocent man,” attorney Maurie Levin wrote in an appeal filed last week.
Evidence used against Cárdenas at trial included an eyewitness who could not identify him in a lineup but could at his trial — a practice that was prohibited by the Texas Legislature this year in an effort to prevent wrongful convictions. His legal team also argued that DNA testing done nearly 20 years ago is now obsolete.
The crux of Cárdenas’ conviction, however, was based on his confessions. Cárdenas’ account changed slightly during days of interrogation — the first 11 of which he did not have an attorney. He asked for a lawyer at his first appearance hearing two days after his arrest, according to the filing.
Levin argued that Cárdenas’ confessions were “false and extremely unreliable,” citing inconsistencies between his confessions and the facts of the crime. Some of the inconsistencies she described were the lack of forensic evidence of sexual activity even though he said he raped his cousin and his statement that he killed her in the back of the car despite only two small drops of blood being found there.
The state countered the false confession argument with a simple statement: Cárdenas led police to the body when they were searching miles away.
“An independently corroborated confession, one that contains information unknown to the police and known only to someone involved, is extraordinarily strong evidence of guilt,” wrote Michael Morris, Hidalgo County’s assistant criminal district attorney.
On Monday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Cárdenas’ last appeals, where he pleaded for a stay of execution and additional DNA testing. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its final denial of that appeal Wednesday night.
Cárdenas' execution was the seventh in Texas this year and the 23rd in the nation. Florida also held an execution Wednesday night for Patrick Hannon.
Read related Tribune coverage:
A 1995 murder of a Houston woman by a Honduran national led a case to the nation's highest court last week. The U.S Supreme Court heard arguments on the issue of federal funding in death penalty investigations during the appeals process. [Full story]
Robert Pruett, convicted in a 1999 prison guard's murder, always said he was framed by corrupt guards and inmates. After rounds of DNA testing that were deemed inconclusive, he was executed. [Full story]
We're tracking Texas' supply of execution drugs [Full story]