Texas executes immigrant after winning in court

August 7, 2008 5:37:48 PM PDT
An illegal immigrant from Honduras who claimed his treaty rights were violated when he was arrested for a robbery-murder near Dallas was executed Thursday evening. "God forgive them, receive my spirit," Heliberto Chi said in English. In Spanish, he told a friend watching through a window that he loved him and appreciated his hard work. He appeared to be whispering a prayer in Spanish with a tear at the corner of his right eye as the lethal drugs began to take effect.

One of Chi's cousins, who was among the witnesses, sobbed uncontrollably. Two sons of his victims watched through another window and Chi glanced at them briefly but didn't appear to acknowledge them.

Chi was pronounced dead nine minutes later at 6:25 p.m. CDT.

He murdered his former boss, Armand Paliotta, during a 2001 robbery at an Arlington men's clothing store where Chi had once worked. An employee was wounded trying to run away and another hid among clothing racks and called 911 for help.

Chi went on the run with his 18-year-old pregnant girlfriend. She turned him in California about six weeks later for assaulting her and told authorities he was wanted for murder in Texas.

Lawyers for Chi had claimed in appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court that he should have been told he could get legal assistance from the Honduran consulate when he was extradited to Texas to face charges.

The Supreme Court, ruling about 21/2 hours before his scheduled execution time, rejected his appeal without dissent. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court, rejected a similar appeal late Wednesday.

The arguments in Chi's case, focusing on rights of foreigners under international treaty, were similar to those used unsuccessfully Tuesday by lawyers for condemned Texas prisoner Jose Medellin. In that case, the Supreme Court, with four of the nine justices dissenting, rejected his appeal and the Mexican-born Medellin was executed for participating in the gruesome gang rape and murders of two teenage Houston girls 15 years ago.

Unlike Medellin, Chi was not among some 50 death row inmates around the country, all Mexican-born, who the International Court of Justice said should have new hearings in U.S. courts to determine whether the 1963 Vienna Convention treaty was violated during their arrests. Mexico had sued in the court on behalf of its citizens condemned in the U.S.

President Bush asked states to review those cases and legislation to implement the process was introduced recently in Congress, but the Supreme Court ruled earlier this year neither the president nor the international court could force Texas to wait.

Chi's attorneys argued that unlike the Vienna Convention obligations with Mexico, the 1927 U.S. Bilateral Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Consular Rights with Honduras was specifically between the U.S. and Honduras and was self-executing, meaning it didn't require legislation to have effect. They said the treaty also conferred individual rights and incorporated international law into enforceable domestic law.

Terry O'Rourke, a lawyer on Chi's legal team who teaches international law at Houston's University of St. Thomas, said Chi's guilt wasn't the issue.

"Chi is a murderer, Medellin is a murderer," O'Rourke said. "But we don't kill all murderers. We don't execute all murderers. We do it according to the law.

"When your state violates international law to kill somebody, it has very negative consequences."

The getaway driver at the murder scene, Hugo Sierra, who is the brother of Chi's girlfriend, is serving a life prison term.

Chi would say little about the crime in an interview with The Associated Press shortly before his then-scheduled execution last year.

"My situation is not about being innocent or guilty," he said. "My rights were violated."

"If it's the Lord's will" and he was executed, Chi said he had "great peace in my mind and soul."

Four other Texas prisoners are set to die this month, including two more next week. They're among at least 15 Texas inmates with execution dates in the coming months.

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