World Court Rules Against U.S. In Death Penalty Case

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - The International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled Wednesday that the U.S. had ignored the international legal rights of two German-born brothers executed in 1999 for killing a bank manager during a 1982 robbery.

Germany took the U.S. to court that year, alleging that American officials has violated the Vienna Convention by not informing consular officials of the arrest and murder convictions of Walter and Karl LaGrand. Had they done so, it argued, consular representation might have saved their lives.

Walter LaGrand was gassed to death in Arizona just hours after the court issued an emergency order to stop the execution from going ahead. His brother had been executed earlier, before the case began.

Germany discovered the LaGrands' situation when they were already on death row. The U.S. has apologized, but it said the court -- the U.N.'s highest legal body -- was not the appropriate forum for the dispute. It also argued that the brothers, who moved to the U.S. as toddlers, had received a fair trial and 15 years of appeals.

The court's 15 judges criticized the state of Arizona for ignoring its 11th-hour order to delay Walter LaGrand's execution until it could hear Germany's case.

But the judges also accepted the American argument that it has set up a department to deal with consular issues relating to foreign citizens arrested under U.S. law. The judges found unanimously that "this commitment must be regarded as meeting Germany's request for a general assurance of non-repetition."

The judgment comes at a time of growing European opposition to the U.S. death penalty, a controversy stimulated by the recent federal execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Earlier this week the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights institution, threatened to withdrawn observer status from the U.S. and Japan unless the two countries immediately stopped all executions.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow