COLUMN ONE : Unexpected Friend on Death Row : Mexico is giving money, legal aid to help defend its citizens facing execution in U.S. Officials cite moral concerns, public sentiment that has made some condemned men into folk heroes south of border.

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Attorney Scott Fouser had wondered how he would ever get the resources needed to file appeals on behalf of Aurelio Barajas, 33, a Mexican national sentenced to die in Idaho for the vicious murder of a convenience store clerk.

Out of the blue in November, Mexican government officials called to offer whatever he needed.

"They've already hired an investigator," Fouser said. "And they're flying me to Mexico, where I'll have a room, meals, car, interpreter and driver and meet with people who know Aurelio's background."

The Barajas case is just one example of a new, aggressive effort that Mexico is making on behalf of its 22 citizens on Death Row in the United States.

Mexico, which outlawed capital punishment in 1929, wants to help the inmates win new trials or have their death sentences commuted, said Laura Espinosa, deputy consulate in Salt Lake City. This could help the inmates take advantage of existing extradition treaties and serve out life sentences, which in Mexico typically last 40 years.

"Imagine an American in a small town in Mexico accused of killing someone," Espinosa said. "We are going to use the same force the United States would in such a case to help one of our own."

Indeed, a nation that has long been accused of flouting the human rights of Americans incarcerated there is turning the tables--and getting results.

The rapid intervention of Mexican officials was partially responsible for persuading a Kentucky judge in May not to apply the death penalty in the case of two brothers convicted of a 1992 murder.

The Mexican government also played an active role in postponing the execution of Ricardo Aldape, 31, who was sentenced to die in September, 1992, in Texas for killing a Houston police officer 10 years earlier. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari even sent a letter to Texas Gov. Ann Richards requesting clemency.

The government is also helping the California Appellate Project find lawyers to represent Ramon Salcido, 32, who is on Death Row in San Quentin for the 1989 murders in Sonoma of his wife, four children, mother-in-law and employer.

In November, officials of Mexico's Commission on Human Rights and Foreign Relations Department interviewed these and other Death Row inmates in California, Arizona, Texas and Idaho with the aim of helping defense lawyers and Mexican consuls conduct investigations on their behalf.

Such efforts are causing deep resentment among American officials who see this as ideological meddling.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has said this is a constitutional type of punishment for a certain classification of crime," said Dane Gillette, state coordinator for capital litigation in California, which has 10 Mexican citizens on Death Row--the most of any state. "We're not punishing people for race or nationality, or sentencing people to death for spitting on the sidewalk. These are heinous crimes."

Idaho Solicitor Gen. Lynn Thomas complains that "we have enough trouble being outmanned by anti-death penalty organizations mounting campaigns against us. Now, we have to put up with foreign governments bankrolling the opposition with unlimited resources."

The danger, Thomas said, "is one of mounting a public relations campaign that distorts the facts--that's what happens when powerful special interests get involved in a case."

Fouser disagreed: "I told the Mexican officials to do everything they feel is appropriate in the Barajas case. Public relations campaigns? Go for it!"

Mexican officials would not reveal how much they have spent on such cases, in part, they say, because costs are virtually impossible to calculate. For example, background investigations inside Mexico are conducted by local and national law enforcement authorities as part of their regular duties.

But they say they are making a full-scale effort to "prevent a Mexican citizen from receiving the death penalty," said Espinosa, who has become an administrator of Death Row appeals for Mexican nationals in the Rocky Mountain states.

Mexican officials say they are resuming a long tradition; in the 1920s, the Mexican consulate successfully pressured California to commute the death sentence of a Mexican minor and lobbied for state legislation prohibiting the execution of children.

This most recent surge is simply a reflection of timing, they say.

After a four-year gap, the death penalty was reinstituted in the United States in 1976. Most such cases take at least 15 years to wind through the courts. So, only recently have Mexican citizens in death penalty cases begun to face execution.

And working with such prisoners, Mexican officials say, has convinced them to get involved earlier in the sentencing and appeals process.

Manuel Hernandez of the consulate office in El Paso said his country is compelled by a moral imperative to aid countrymen convicted of capital crimes.

Mexico's involvement in such cases, he said, can help ensure that the inmates' human and civil rights are not violated, and that all available legal resources are exhausted before an execution takes place.

"All the consulate offices in the United States have received instructions to follow these premises," Hernandez said, "not only with death sentence cases, but with all our nationals incarcerated in the United States."

In Mexico, only military personnel are subject to the death penalty; not even military courts have carried out executions for three decades.

Mexican officials also cite studies showing that in the United States, the poor and minorities are more likely to be executed. Indeed, many Mexicans believe some of their countrymen on Death Row are victims of racism and that it is hard for Mexican nationals in capital cases to receive a fair trial.

The March execution of Ramon Montoya in Huntsville, Tex., was the top story in the Mexican press for weeks before and days afterward. Montoya, 38, was convicted in the January, 1983, shooting death of a Dallas police officer. His last words--"Well, God help you"--were faithfully reported along with the detailed saga of his death by lethal injection.

The day of Montoya's execution, riot police surrounded the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to protect it from citizens and human rights groups demonstrating against the death penalty.

Later, he was given a hero's burial in Mexico, complete with mariachi escort to the cemetery and telegrams of condolence from top government and church officials.

U.S. officials have several reasons to be wary of Mexico's involvement in American death penalty cases.

In 1984, Luis Aviles, who had been convicted of killing a Houston taxi driver four years earlier, was returned to Mexico in a prisoner-exchange program.

By 1988, he was paroled and re-entered the United States illegally. In December of that year, he was arrested in Riverside in connection with another murder. Aviles, 34, is now on Death Row in San Quentin.

Also, MariClair Acosta, director of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, sees an irony in Mexico's campaign against the U.S. death penalty while abuses of civil liberties exist within its own legal system.

"I am not opposed to (the Mexican effort to save its citizens on U.S. Death Rows); I just do not understand it," Acosta said. "We are more worried about what is happening inside the country. There are serious cases of human rights abuses here that deserve the government's attention."

Espinosa, the consular official in Salt Lake City, said: "In Mexico, I know there is corruption and torture. It's true. I'm not denying it. But over the last five years we have tried to eliminate these problems."

Some human rights activists say the Mexican government's efforts really don't amount to much. Francis Boyle, a professor at the University of Illinois' College of Law at Champagne-Urbana, said President Salinas should seek international hearings to decide whether either country should put citizens to death.

Boyle, a member of Amnesty International, the London-based human rights organization, says that right now, Salinas is "just posturing, throwing money at a problem to avoid taking a serious political step to save the lives of Mexicans on Death Row."

Nonetheless, such cases have become rallying points for anti-death penalty groups in the United States and for government officials in Mexico, who have come under increasing public pressure in that country because of stories such as Ricardo Aldape's.

In that highly publicized case, Aldape was convicted of killing Houston Police Officer James Harris in 1982. His defense attorney, Scott Atlas, said the Mexican government "flew me to Mexico, took care of accommodations and lined up character witnesses. They also flew one of the witnesses up here for a hearing and arranged for my client's parents to come here and visit him."

Atlas maintains that another man, Roberto Carrasco, shot and killed Harris. Carrasco died in the shootout.

Aldape's name is now sung in sad Mexican ballads on both sides of the border and his picture is emblazoned on T-shirts that say: "Soy Innocente" ("I Am Innocent").

The Idaho case of Aurelio Barajas is less well known in Mexico, but Fouser, with the support of Mexican officials, hopes to change all that.

On Feb. 7, a Payette County jury found Barajas guilty of first-degree murder in the June, 1992, slaying of Fruitland, Ida., store clerk Sherill Jean McDonald. Her throat was slashed with such force that a pathologist could see her vertebrae. The jury based its verdict on evidence that included a butcher knife discovered in Barajas' car with traces of McDonald's blood on it.

But Fouser questions the adequacy of Barajas' trial defense, as well as citing language difficulties and possible mental problems.

In a pre-sentencing hearing, Barajas' original defense attorney, John Gatchel, argued that his client did not disclose an alibi until the second day of trial. As a result, the lawyer said, he did not have enough time to investigate the alibi or locate and interview witnesses who could support it.

In that alibi, Barajas said the knife did not belong to him and that he had loaned his car to an acquaintance on the night of the murder, according to court documents filed in the case.

Gatchel also argued that Barajas had displayed signs of paranoia and persecution and might be mentally incompetent.

District Court Judge Gerald L. Weston dismissed the alibi argument and added that Barajas was found to be free of "depression, anxiety and loss of contact with reality" during a three-hour examination by a court-appointed psychologist.

Regrettably, Fouser said, the psychologist did not speak Spanish.

Thomas shrugged off Fouser's assertions, saying: "There is no such thing as a perfect proceeding.

"The question is: Did any of these things undermine our confidence in the validity of the finding of guilt? The answer is no. The evidence was overwhelming."

A week ago, Barajas was transferred from the Idaho Maximum Security Institute's Death Row to a medical facility where he was being treated for possible psychotic behavior, Fouser said.

Barajas was returned to Death Row last Monday. He refused to eat, claiming that his prison meals were laced with poison by "people out to get him," Fouser said. Barajas was also seen drinking water out of the toilet, he said.

"We have to determine whether these symptoms are a new onset or if there is a history of them," Fouser said. "Since I don't know of any Hispanic psychologists in the state of Idaho, I may ask the Mexican consulate about finding one who's bilingual."

Espinosa calls the case a "frame-up of an innocent man."

"Our goal is to get him a new trial," Espinosa said. "If he is taken off Death Row and given a life sentence, he may be able to complete it in Mexico."

Paul McMurdie, chief counsel of the appeals section of the Arizona attorney general's office, defended Mexico's interest in such cases.

"I'm not afraid of Mexico helping these Mexican nationals--in some respects it will save the state of Arizona some money" in defense attorney's costs, McMurdie said. But he also suggested that the Mexican government may be grasping at straws.

"I truly believe the Mexican nationals we have on Death Row deserve to be there," he said.

Mexicans on Death Row in U.S.

A total of 22 Mexican citizens are facing capital punishment in six U.S. states. State: Arizona Prisoner: Ramon Martinez Villarreal Age: 48 Year: 1982 Crime Sentenced: Two murders during a robbery *State: California Prisoner: Carlos Jaime Avena Gillen Age: 33 Year: 1982 Crime Sentenced: Two murders during a robbery *Prisoner: Luis Aviles Age: 34 Year: 1992 Crime Sentenced: Murder *Prisoner: Juan Hector Ayala Age: 34 Year: 1989 Crime Sentenced: Three murders during a robbery *Prisoner: Vicente Benavides Figueroa Age: 44 Year: 1993 Crime Sentenced: Rape and murder of a minor *Prisoner: Constantino Carrera Montenegro Age: 32 Year: 1987 Crime Sentenced: Two murders during a robbery *Prisoner: Jose Lupercio Cazares Age: 37 Year: 1992 Crime Sentenced: Murder *Prisoner: Abelino Manriquez Age: 37 Year: 1993 Crime Sentenced: Four serial killings, accused of three more *Prisoner: Sergio Ochoa Tamayo Age: 25 Year: 1992 Crime Sentenced: Two murders *Prisoner: Ramon Salcido Bojorquez Age: 32 Year: 1990 Crime Sentenced: Seven murders of his family and employer *Prisoner: Alfredo Valdes Reyes Age: 30 Year: 1992 Crime Sentenced: Murder *State: Texas Prisoner: Ricardo Aldape Guerra Age: 31 Year: 1982 Crime Sentenced: Murder of police officer *Prisoner: Cesar Roberto Fierro Reyna Age: 37 Year: 1979 Crime Sentenced: Murder during a robbery *Prisoner: Miguel Angel Flores Age: 24 Year: 1990 Crime Sentenced: Murder during kidnaping and rape *Prisoner: Roberto Moreno Ramos Age: 39 Year: 1992 Crime Sentenced: Murder of wife and two children *Prisoner: Javier Suarez Medina Age: 24 Year: 1989 Crime Sentenced: Murder of police officer Prisoner: Hector Torres Garcia Age: 28 Year: 1990 Crime Sentenced: Murder during a robbery *Prisoner: Irineo Tristan Montoya Age: 26 Year: 1985 Crime Sentenced: Murder during a robbery *State: Illinois Prisoner: Juan Alonso Hernandez Caballero Age: 33 Year: 1980 Crime Sentenced: Three murders *Prisoner: Mario Flores Urbano Age: 28 Year: 1984 Crime Sentenced: Murder during a robbery *State: North Carolina Prisoner: Bernardino Zuniga Age: 38 Year: 1982 Crime Sentenced: Rape and murder of a minor *State: Idaho Prisoner: Aurelio Barajas Moya Age: 33 Year: 1992 Crime Sentenced: Murder during a robbery

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