LaGrand case

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The LaGrand case was a legal action heard before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) which concerned the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In the case the ICJ found that its own temporary court orders were legally binding and that the rights contained in the convention could not be denied by the application of domestic legal procedures.



On January 7, 1982, brothers Karl and Walter Bernhard LaGrand bungled an armed bank robbery in Marana, Arizona, United States, killing a man and severely injuring a woman in the process. They were subsequently charged and convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The LaGrands were German nationals, having been born in Germany. While they had both lived in the United States since they were three, neither had acquired U.S. citizenship. As foreigners the LaGrands should have been informed of their right to consular assistance, under the Vienna Convention, from their state of nationality, Germany. However the United States authorities (the State of Arizona) failed to do this even after they became aware that the LaGrands were German nationals. The LaGrand brothers later contacted the German consulate of their own accord, having learned of their right to consular assistance. They appealed their sentences and convictions on the grounds that they were not informed of their right to consular assistance, and that with consular assistance they might have been able to mount a better defense. The federal courts rejected their argument on grounds of procedural default, which provides that issues cannot be raised in federal court appeals unless they have first been raised in state courts.

Diplomatic efforts, including pleas by German ambassador Jürgen Chrobog and German Member of Parliament Claudia Roth, and the recommendation of the Arizona's clemency board, failed to sway Arizona Governor Jane Dee Hull, who insisted that the executions be carried out.[1] Karl LaGrand was subsequently executed by the State of Arizona on February 24, 1999, by lethal injection. Walter LaGrand was then executed March 3, 1999, by lethal gas[2].

The case

Germany then initiated legal action in the International Court of Justice against the United States regarding Walter LaGrand. Hours before Walter LaGrand was due to be executed, Germany applied for the Court to grant a provisional court order, requiring the United States to delay the execution of Walter LaGrand, which the court granted.

Germany then initiated action in the U.S. Supreme Court for enforcement of the provisional order. In its judgment,[3] the U.S. Supreme Court held that it lacked jurisdiction with respect to Germany's complaint against Arizona due to the eleventh amendment of the U.S. constitution, which prohibits federal courts from hearing lawsuits of foreign states against a U.S. state. With respect to Germany's case against the United States, it held that the doctrine of procedural default was not incompatible with the Vienna Convention, and that even if procedural default did conflict with the Vienna Convention it had been overruled by later federal law—the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which explicitly legislated the doctrine of procedural default. (Subsequent federal legislation overrides prior self-executing treaty provisions, Whitney v. Robertson, 124 U.S. 190 (1888)).

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