Fleeing to Mexico Thwarts Death Penalty

Michelle Roberts, AP, January 17, 2008

A methamphetamine dealer who gunned down a deputy during a traffic stop in Southern California. A man in Arizona who killed his ex-girlfriend’s parents and brother and snatched his children. A man who suffocated his baby daughter and left her body in a toolbag on an expressway overpass near Chicago.

Ordinarily, these would be death penalty cases. But these men fled to Mexico, thereby escaping the possibility of execution.

The reason: Mexico refuses to send anyone back to the United States unless the U.S. gives assurances it won’t seek the death penalty—a 30-year-old policy that rankles some American prosecutors and enrages victims’ families.

“We find it extremely disturbing that the Mexican government would dictate to us, in Arizona, how we would enforce our laws at the same time they are complaining about our immigration laws,” said Barnett Lotstein, special assistant to the prosecutor in Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix.

“Even in the most egregious cases, the Mexican authorities say, ‘No way,’ and that’s not justice. That’s an interference of Mexican authorities in our judicial process in Arizona.”

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Mexico routinely returns fugitives to the U.S. to face justice. But under a 1978 treaty with the U.S., Mexico, which has no death penalty, will not extradite anyone facing possible execution. To get their hands on a fugitive, U.S. prosecutors must agree to seek no more than life in prison.

Other countries, including France and Canada, also demand such “death assurances.” But the problem is more common with Mexico, since it is often a quick drive from the crime scene for a large portion of the United States.

“If you can get to Mexico—if you have the means—it’s a way of escaping the death penalty,” said Issac Unah, a University of North Carolina political science professor.

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