Lawyers sue to halt Mexican citizen's execution in Texas

HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) - Attorneys for a Mexican citizen on death row in Texas for the abduction and slaying of his 16-year-old cousin more than two decades ago looked to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals courts to halt his execution Wednesday, arguing that state officials violated his rights by refusing to release evidence so it can undergo new DNA testing.

Ruben Ramirez Cardenas was scheduled for lethal injection Wednesday evening for the February 1997 killing of Mayra Laguna in the Rio Grande Valley in far South Texas.

The high school student was snatched from a bedroom she shared with a younger sister at her family's public housing apartment in McAllen and her body was found later in a canal near a lake. In a confession to police, Cardenas said he and a friend drove around with Laguna in his mother's car, that he had sex with the girl and then fatally beat her as she fought him after he unbound her arms to let her go.

Cardenas, 47, would be the seventh inmate executed this year in Texas, which carries out capital punishment more than any other state.

His lawyers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit late Tuesday in which they claim his due process and civil rights were violated because Texas officials won't release evidence so it can undergo new DNA testing. Attorneys for the state called the lawsuit improper and said state courts already refused the DNA request because Cardenas could not show that more advanced tests would exonerate him.

The attorneys also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday, asking it to stop the execution and review the case, including the DNA testing arguments.

In a separate federal lawsuit also filed late Tuesday, one of Cardenas' lawyers argued she was denied a witness spot in the death chamber. Attorney Maurie Levin also requested to have telephone access during the execution, saying she needed it to contact courts and the Texas governor before and during the punishment.

Texas prisons spokesman Jason Clark said no rules prevent an inmate's lawyer from attending an execution, but that Cardenas previously had not indicated he wanted Levin to be there.

Cardenas told prison officials Wednesday he wanted her to attend, Clark said. But, the spokesman added, the attorney would not be allowed to have a phone in the chamber.

"Witnesses to an execution have never had the ability to bring in a cellphone, as it is prohibited by policy and state law. Nor is there a landline phone accessible to those witnesses," Clark said.

Levin previously contended that authorities acted improperly when not telling the Mexican-born Cardenas that he could get legal help from the Mexican consulate.

Being born in Mexico, which does not have capital punishment, made Cardenas eligible for legal help from the Mexican consulate when he was arrested, according to provisions of the Vienna Convention of Consular Relations, which is a 1963 international agreement. The courts have allowed executions to move forward in several previous Texas death row cases in which the agreement was said to have been violated.

In a statement Monday, the Foreign Relations Department said Mexico "will maintain until the last minute its efforts to achieve a moratorium or suspension of this penalty" for Cardenas.

Rene Guerra, the former Hidalgo County district attorney who prosecuted Cardenas, said Tuesday that he "wouldn't be able to live with myself" if he believed the conviction was improper.

"I never would have authorized a case that was not there or was a flimsy investigation," he said. "This guy deserves the death penalty."

On the DNA argument, state attorneys have said that the DNA test results presented at Cardenas' trial were not false. Hidalgo County prosecutors have argued the request for new testing from the inmate's attorneys was only intended to delay the punishment.

Laguna's younger sister, Roxanna Laguna, told authorities she awoke in pre-dawn darkness Feb. 22, 1997, to see an intruder in their bedroom. She said Mayra's mouth was taped and her hands were bound, and that the man went out a window with her.

A woman in the same Hidalgo County public housing complex called police after seeing a man walking with a barefoot girl who was wearing only a shirt and underwear. Cardenas initially was questioned about the teen's disappearance because he was a close family member who had socialized with her.

"I didn't plan on doing this, but I was high on cocaine," he later told authorities.

He said after he hit the teen in the neck, she began coughing up blood and having breathing difficulties. After trying unsuccessfully to revive her, he said he tied her up "and rolled her down a canal bank."

A friend in the car with Cardenas, Jose Antonio Lopez Castillo, now 45, was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and is serving a 25-year prison term.


Associated Press reporter Peter Orsi contributed to this story from Mexico City.