The Supreme Court today affirms the death penalty in People v. Vargas for a 1999 robbery and murder.  The court’s unanimous opinion by Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar does so despite finding that law enforcement officials “technically violated the Vienna Convention.”

The international law violation occurred when the officials didn’t inform the defendant — a Mexican national — of his right to contact the Mexican consulate and when they failed to notify the consulate of the defendant’s arrest until after the jury had returned a death verdict.  But the court concludes there is no reason to reverse the judgment because the defendant “suffered no prejudice” from the violation.  The court nevertheless left open the possibility of a further showing of prejudice in a habeas corpus petition.

Echoing a Justice Cuéllar concurring opinion earlier this year, the court states, “Too often ignored, the nation’s [Vienna Convention] Article 36 obligations remain enormously important” and it warns that consular notification violations in other cases could require remedies, including the possible suppression of a defendant’s confession.

As is routine in death penalty appeals, the defendant raises and the court summarily brushes aside numerous arguments the court has rejected in the past.  One such rejection today is the court’s holding that “juries are not subject to a unanimity requirement when they are deciding whether a particular factor in aggravation [at the trial’s penalty phase] is present.”  However, the court’s request last month for supplemental briefing in another death penalty appeal — People v. McDaniel — suggests the court might reconsider this rule.

The court also turns aside a host of other contentions, including that a warrantless probation search was improper because the defendant had not validly waived his Fourth Amendment rights when he was placed on probation for an earlier crime and that insufficient evidence supported the conviction of active participation in a criminal street gang.