This walled medieval city in France’s ancient Breton heartland is the last place anyone would look for evidence of a coming transformation in US law. German and British tourists crowd the old stone streets and file through the twelfth-century Church of St. Saveur to gaze up at a stained-glass portrayal of St. Rocco dying in prison. The small Commissaire du Police on the town square nearby is barely noticeable. But a few months ago, gendarmes from this police station and prosecutors from the nineteenth-century Palais du Justice down the block made international headlines with the arrest of fugitive James Charles Kopp, accused of murdering Buffalo obstetrician Bernard Slepian and wounding three Canadian physicians.
As noteworthy to many Americans as the fugitive’s arrest was what Dinan officials did next: They refused to extradite Kopp to the United States, because he might face the death penalty. No one in France had any sympathy for Kopp, nor did they doubt the danger he represents. But France is a signatory to European conventions prohibiting extradition where capital charges are a possibility; in a late June court hearing in Rennes, a few miles from Dinan, three judges made it clear that when it comes to this standard, France means business: Kopp would only be turned over to US prosecutors, they reiterated, if the death penalty is not “requested, pronounced or applied.” Kopp’s French lawyer, Hervé Rouzaud-Leboeuf, added this fillip: “Given what we know of the opinions of the current American President, we must stay extra vigilant.” It took three months of painstaking negotiations, ending with written assurances from George W. Bush’s normally death-penalty-enamored Justice Department, before the French in early July shipped Kopp back to New York for trial.
France’s refusal to extradite even so intensely hunted a fugitive is at once ordinary and emblematic. Ordinary: The sheltering of a US defendant from the US death penalty is routine in a growing number of countries, and is unusual only in that it surfaced in the media. Emblematic: In recent months, long-simmering overseas opposition to the US death penalty seems to have reached the boiling point.
The datelines alone suggest that something is happening on a widespread scale. Toronto and Johannesburg: The high courts of Canada and South Africa both ruled unanimously this spring that their nations may not extradite even the most wanted criminals to the United States or other nations if they could face capital charges–effectively blocking execution, one case at a time, in an international gesture of judicial noncooperation. Mexico City: President Vicente Fox personally persuaded Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating to stay the scheduled June execution of Mexican national Gerardo Valdez Mota after the State Department acknowledged that Valdez’s rights under the Vienna Convention had been violated; throughout his trial and appeals Valdez was never informed that he could call the Mexican consulate for legal help. (On July 20, however, Keating refused clemency–turning aside not only Fox but the recommendation of Oklahoma’s own parole board.) The Hague: On June 27 the World Court ruled that the United States had violated its Vienna Convention obligations by executing two German nationals without permitting them a lawyer hired by their consulate–and asserted the Court’s own authority over capital cases involving foreign nationals. Madrid: When President Bush landed in Spain, he faced scores of anti-death-penalty protesters and hard questions from the local press about a Spanish national on Florida’s death row who had been exonerated and freed just days before. All this in just a few weeks’ time. As much as 2000 was marked by Illinois Governor George Ryan’s death-penalty moratorium, this year represents “a moment of transformation,” in the words of Harold Koh, former Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights–one in which the American death-penalty debate is going definitively global.