The capital murder case of Roberto Moreno Ramos is extraordinary—not because of the crime that sent him to his death on November 14, 2018 in hands Texas death chamber but rather because of the international attention his case attracted.
There was no factual dispute that Ramos killed his wife and two small children in 1992 in Progreso, Texas—a small town located along the Mexico border. There was, however, a serious legal dispute about whether his recent execution was constitutional and whether it violated international law.
Texas Violates Vienna Convention, International Law
In 2004, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands found Ramos was one of 52 Mexican citizens awaiting execution in the U.S. He, just like the other Mexican nationals, was not advised of “their consular rights” under the Vienna Convention following their American arrest. In what has become known as the “Avena decision”, the International Court recommended that the capital convictions of these Mexican nationals should be set aside because of the violation of their Vienna Convention rights.
Then President George W. Bush did not accept the full recommendation of the International Court but he did issue what became known as the “Bush Memorandum” directing all state courts to comply with the Avena decision. President Bush was acting in accordance with the United Nations Charter and his foreign affairs authority. Texas courts refused to recognize that presidential authority.
Jose Medellin Executed
In May 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Texas courts in Medellin v. Texas by finding that the President did not have the authority to order state courts to bypass their own procedural rules and comply with the Avena decision handed down by the International Court. In that wake of that Supreme Court blessing, Texas executed Jose Medellin on August 5, 2008.
And it is against this historical backdrop that the three former judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) entered the Ramos death penalty fray.
Ramos Execution Spotlights Fatal Flaws of Death Penalty Litigation
In the mid-1990s, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals appointed an inexperienced attorney to represent Ramos with his post-conviction appeals. This appointment was made pursuant to Article 11.071 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure which required at the time the appointment of “competent counsel” in post-conviction appeals in death penalty cases.
Former Justices Take Stand for Rule of Law, Constitution
In an amicus curiae brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on November 14, 2018, former CCA Judges Charles Baird, Morris Overstreet, and Cheryl Johnson argued to the nation’s highest court that Ramos’s lawyer, Welch, had never handled a capital case and was woefully unprepared to deal with the enormous magnitude of such cases on appeal. In their brief, the judges noted that “ … Mr. Welch himself has admitted that he lacked the experience, training, and resources to properly handle Mr. Ramos’s case.” The judges informed the Supreme Court that this professional inexperience resulted in following representation deficiencies by Mr. Welch in the Ramos case:
- The appointed attorney filed a 12-page habeas corpus petition that “contained no cognizable claims;”
- He “failed to develop any extra record claims;”
- He did not seek “funding for investigative or expert assistance;”
- Welch himself admitted that he failed to investigate or develop cognizable habeas claims ‘because [he] didn’t know it was necessary’;” and
- He “miscalculated the deadline to file Ramos’s [habeas] application, rendering it untimely.”
These deficiencies prompted the amicus judges to suggest to the high court that “Mr. Welch’s failure to perform even the most basic tasks as state habeas counsel is the best evidence that Mr. Welch lacked the qualification and experience to qualify as ‘competent’ counsel as required by article 11.071 of the Code of Criminal Procedure.”
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Complicit
The amicus judges did not exclusively lay the blame for Mr. Welch’s flawed legal representation of Ramos at the appointed attorney’s doorstep but rather blamed the CCA for failing to put in place “rules and standards” the Texas Legislature had instructed the state’s highest criminal court of appeals to do long before it appointed Mr. Welch.
The indisputable fact is that the CCA had absolutely no attorney competency standards in place when it appointed Mr. Welch to represent Ramos. Amicus Johnson, in a concurring 2002 opinion dealing with essentially the same issue, said that the CCA “bears some ‘responsibility’ when an unqualified or incompetent counsel does not do his job.”
In fact, around the same time the CCA appointed Mr. Welch to Ramos’s case, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had called out the CCA because its system of appointing “capital habeas counsel” lacked “specific, mandatory standards,” resulting in a practice where attorneys being appointed to capital cases were not required to have “specialized training in capital post-conviction litigation.”
Defense Attorneys Fights to Save Life
Houston-based capital defense attorney Danalynn Recer, who was representing Ramos’s at the time of his execution, stated in court filings trying to save Ramos’s life that: “No fact-finder or decision-maker entrusted with Mr. Moreno Ramos’ life has ever been provided with evidence of (his) ‘diverse human [mental health] frailties’ to assist them in dispensing the most severe punishment under law.”
The bottom line is this: Roberto Moreno Ramos’s serious mental health (a severe bipolar condition) was not presented to the jury that convicted him because of ineffective trial counsel; his right under international law to be informed of his “consular rights” after arrest were denied to him because the State of Texas does not either respect or abide by international law and/or treaties; and his statutory and constitutional right to a meaningful post-conviction review of his case—particularly his mental health issue—was denied to him by an attorney who conceded his own legal incompetence.
Legal Warriors Fight for Justice
We commend the amicus judges for the courage and moral fortitude to fight to the last minute to save Ramos’s life and we offer our deep respect for capital defense attorneys like Ms. Recer who wage exhaustive—sometimes futile—fights to not only protect the rights of Texas’s condemned inmates but also to try to save them from the state’s final, inhumane judgment.
In his final words, Ramos asked God to send him a “chariot.” That’s rather poetic since the State of Texas only gave him a ragged horse-drawn wagon from arrest to execution.
The State should bow its head in shame.
Ramos’s execution did not strike a blow for justice as Texas Attorney Ken Paxton suggested. Rather it was a firing squad-like execution into the very heart of human decency.