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U.S. accuses Germany of undermining death penalty


THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- U.S. lawyers have accused Germany of distorting international law in a deceptive attempt to undermine America's right to enforce the death penalty.

U.S. government lawyers asked the World Court, the top judicial branch of the United Nations, to reject Germany's demand for a legal sanction and reparations following the executions of two German citizens last year in Arizona.

The move came on the second day of hearings into the case of Walter and Karl LaGrand, put to death for the fatal stabbing of a bank manager in Marana, near Tucson, in 1982.

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The case emphasised the deep trans-Atlantic rift over capital punishment, which has been abolished throughout Europe. European countries protested in vain to delay a death sentence carried out on Friday against a Mexican-born man who murdered a college student in Texas.

James Thessin, the chief U.S. agent to the court, admitted that Arizona authorities violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by failing to inform the LaGrands upon arrest on January 7, 1982, of their right to assistance from the German consulate.

He told the 15 justices in the oak-panelled, chandeliered courtroom that the United States has presented a formal apology to the German government.

Nevertheless, Thessin questioned Germany's motives in bringing the case to the international court, suggesting it was a ruse to put the U.S. justice system on trial and "litigate the death penalty under the guise of a violation to that convention."

International law, said Thessin, a State Department legal adviser, permits capital punishment "in accordance with due process of the law and stringent procedural safeguards, as is the case in the United States."

The U.S. agent maintained that the panel's jurisdiction is limited to interpretation of international treaties and does not have the power to review criminal procedures.

"We must not," he said, "allow Germany to lead us into examining again the competency of counsel, analysing manufactured allegations of racial discrimination or restructuring the United States criminal justice system."

"Germany, in effect, has invited this court to create a new international legal obligation, one that would necessarily intrude deep into the domestic criminal justice system of any state," Thessin said.

Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano also apologised for the violation of the convention in the Lagrands' detention.

Twenty-four stab wounds

However, she rejected Germany's claims that consular officials could have provided mitigating evidence on their background in Germany. She said the pair had a troubled childhood before they came to America with their German mother and stepfather, a U.S. serviceman.

The attorney general noted that they were born out of wedlock, suffered parental neglect, spent long periods in foster care and were discriminated against because of their mixed-race background.

Nevertheless, she reminded the court of the gravity of the crime. Frustrated by the failure of their robbery attempt, the LaGrands stabbed 63-year-old Kenneth Hartsock 24 times with a letter opener until he died and wounded a bank teller who lived to testify, Napolitano said.

"No additional evidence that Germany provided would have changed these facts or the nature of the mitigation that the court considered," she said.

Germany opened its case on Monday by denouncing the death penalty and noting its concern that dozens of foreigners now on death row may not have received proper consular representation.

German agent Gerhard Westdickenberg said violations of the Vienna convention continue despite U.S. promises to improve compliance.

Reuters contributed to this report.

Germany sues U.S. in World Court over Arizona executions
November 13, 2000
German executed in Arizona, legal challenge fails
March 4, 1999
World Court urges U.S. to stay German's execution
March 3, 1999
Other LaGrand brother cleared for death by injection
Febrary 26, 1999

International Court of Justice
U.S. State Department
German Foreign Office, in German
Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties
Amnesty International

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