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Angel Francisco Breard was executed by Virginia in contempt of a treaty that required his home country to be notified when he was first charged. What difference might it have made if the U.S. had obeyed the law?
It was Carol’s father who placed the curse on Angel Francisco Breard. He was sure of it. Carol’s father struck a deal with Satan, and now Breard was being tormented. When the curse visited Breard, as it was wont to do in the early 1990s, it always acted on him the same way: after a day of heavy drinking (a case of beer or more), Breard would be plucked from consciousness and his body used like a puppet, made to move and stalk and touch and kill and act out the motions of crimes. They were crimes, Breard would admit, but he hadn’t committed them. Satan had.
Breard first publicly voiced this theory on June 23, 1993, after a prosecutor in Arlington County, Virginia, asked him to explain to the jury whether he had raped and killed Ruth Dickie one February night the previous year. “It seemed like something or somebody was manipulating my body,” he recounted on the stand. Months earlier, the prosecutor had offered Breard a plea deal—life in prison, rather than a bid for the death penalty, in exchange for an admission of guilt—but Breard had declined. He was convinced that once a jury understood the curse’s power, and saw how hard he had worked to escape it, he would surely be found not guilty.
When I began looking into Breard’s case, I knew nothing of his unusual defense. I knew only that he was a foreign national—Argentine by birth, Paraguayan by citizenship—and that he had been executed by the state of Virginia in 1998.
I learned about Breard’s case while researching a treaty called the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which the United States signed in 1963. The Vienna Convention made legally binding much of what had long been standard diplomatic practice, such as special rights for ambassadors and protections for embassies. One Vienna Convention rule, contained in Article 36, is a little different. It put in place the following diplomatic convention: if Country A arrests a citizen of Country B, then Country A must quickly notify Country B and allow its officials to access and assist the detained citizen.
The Vienna Convention has been signed or ratified by 182 countries, and few have raised problems with Article 36. Even countries with abysmal human rights records abide by it. The only country that routinely violates Article 36 of the Convention is the United States.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, of the thirty-four foreign nationals who have been executed in the United States since 1976, only one has been properly informed of his rights under the Vienna Convention. The rest, Breard among them, were notified too late, or not at all. (The United States also routinely violates the Vienna Convention in non-capital cases, though there is no comprehensive data on this.)
Critics of Article 36 contend that it’s a formality—guilt is guilt, they say, home country notified or not. But others argue that support from one’s home country can make a substantial difference in case outcomes. On several occasions, the home countries of foreign nationals have provided competent legal counsel, context on the U.S. justice system, and documentation of mental illness and other mitigating factors that have led to lighter sentences and even findings of innocence.
So, I decided to dig into the question of whether U.S. flouting of international law has material consequences. I picked a name at random from the Death Penalty Information Center’s list of foreign nationals executed in the United States and asked the question: What difference could it have made if the United States followed the rules?
Breard’s was the name I picked. What I found showed me the far-reaching effects of U.S. noncompliance.
In 1987, six years before going to trial, Angel Francisco Breard was enrolled in an English for Immigrants night class at the ESL Language Center in Washington, D.C. At the time, he wasn’t yet under a curse, nor had he met the man who he would one day testify had conspired against him, but he had met the man’s daughter: his English teacher, Carol. Like Breard, Carol was twenty-one and working her way through school, teaching the class to make some money and to help people who reminded her of her parents, Argentine immigrants who had come to the United States decades earlier with limited English skills.
Each week, Carol’s students would file into the classroom after long days at their jobs. Breard, wearing construction-site garb, would slip in among them. After class, Carol and a few students around her age, including Breard, would head to a neighborhood bar and share some beers. Soon, Carol and Breard started dating and moved in together in Silver Spring, Maryland, near the last stop on the DC metro line.
Carol found Breard attentive and chivalrous. “He would make sure I didn’t have to go to the store or go to the post office or even put gas in my car,” she told me. “Women would swoon over having this man do everything for them.” But most importantly, Carol said, Breard made her feel seen as a Latina. Born in the U.S. with fair skin, Carol felt people often doubted her Argentine heritage or underestimated its importance in her life. But not Breard. “Here was someone who knew my culture more or less, spoke my language, that didn’t doubt that I’m Hispanic and that Spanish is my first language.”
Like Carol, Breard was Argentine. He was born about 600 miles north of Buenos Aires, in the province of Corrientes, where his father ran rural schools. One day when Breard was five years old, he and his mother were hit by a car. The two of them had been walking through a field to reach one of Corrientes’s main roads, and just as they crossed the edge of the plot, their bodies were struck by a livestock truck. According to court records, Breard was injured, and his mother, Armenia, rushed into surgery. Slowly recovering and struggling to care for her children, Armenia and her husband decided to move the family to her hometown of Asunción, Paraguay, where her relatives could help care for the children. There, Breard grew close with his Paraguayan family—his aunt Margarita, his uncle Eleuterio, his cousin Graciela. He embraced his mother’s heritage, became a Paraguayan citizen, and, with the help of his military-vet uncle, got a job in the Office of Publications of the Paraguayan Armed Forces.
As much as Breard loved his family and Carol loved hers, they decided to marry somewhat suddenly, without inviting their parents, in August 1987. They didn’t see why they should wait. Carol was one semester away from earning her bachelor’s degree, and Breard had steady work as a drywall contractor in D.C. They were happy and in love. So, they tied the knot and began planning a time for their families to meet and celebrate. They settled on Christmas 1987 at Carol’s parents’ house in Miami.
Most of the record in Breard’s criminal case consists of the so-called guilt phase, when jurors were presented with a story of how Breard unraveled and what crime he ultimately committed. That story began at Christmas in Miami.
Here’s how court records tell it. Six members of the two families—Carol, her parents, Breard, and his mother Armenia and sister Elizabeth, who’d flown in from Paraguay—convened at Carol’s parents’ house. On Christmas Eve, out of the blue, Breard became irate and began screaming at Carol. Carol’s father tried to calm Breard, but he was inconsolable. After some time, Carol’s father demanded that Breard leave. Carol’s father called his friend, Norman, who removed Breard, Armenia, and Elizabeth from the house and dropped them off at a hotel.
As soon as they got to the hotel, Breard fell flat on the floor. He couldn’t speak. He developed a tick on the left side of his face and his left arm became paralyzed, contorted so his fist was pressed against the top of his left shoulder. Armenia and Elizabeth tried to peel him off the ground and drag him to a doctor, but they didn’t have the strength. None of them slept all night. The next day, Christmas, Breard and Armenia took a bus to Washington, D.C. For eighteen hours, Breard wept into his mother’s shoulder. Armenia stayed with her son for four months, until she felt he was once again emotionally stable.
After Armenia left the United States in April 1998, Breard resumed working long hours on construction sites and sending remittances to his mother in Asunción. Then, at the end of 1990, Breard got a fever that would last three or four months. Shortly after his fever finally broke, in the summer of 1991, Breard’s friends and coworkers grew worried about his drinking. Every day, he’d start drinking in the morning, continue drinking during breaks between jobs, and finish at least a case of beer before bed. He became jumpy, sometimes violent, and began skulking in the shadows of streets near his home.
Breard told the court that on the night of February 17, 1992, he finally broke with reality. “I really didn’t understand, what was happening, I don’t know if the nightmare was still going on.”
After leaving his home in search of beer, he spotted Ruth Dickie walking down North Henderson Road. He made conversation with her, friendly at first, and then began to follow her. He had a knife in his jacket. When Dickie reached her building, Breard forced his way in behind her and chased her up the stairs to her second-story apartment. Inside, he stabbed and raped her. (Breard never admitted to the rape, though he was convicted of it.) After some time, there was a knock at the door, but by the time it was opened, Breard had run to the kitchen and jumped out the window. He hobbled home from Dickie’s apartment on a twisted ankle.
Breard wasn’t arrested until six months later. He had just picked up some ice cream and was parking in front of his apartment complex. Police cruisers approached and blocked him in.
Mr. McCue (Public Defender): Up until the time you were arrested did you realize what you had done; had you thought about it since it happened?
[. . .]
Mr. Breard: Well, it was—I knew that something was—you know, something heavy, something wrong. And that it was there. If I started to remember I could, and you know, I could but because of—if I could then I seeing that was scary, I was afraid, I just didn’t try to remember.
Breard’s guilt was not difficult to ascertain; he insisted he’d had no intention to kill Dickie, but did not deny that he had. The role of Breard’s defense lawyers in these proceedings was important but somewhat minimal—object to leading questions, ensure Breard understood what was going on.
But when the guilt phase turned to sentencing, things got hazier. That’s when the work of the defense really began—or, in Breard’s case, when it should have begun.
At Breard’s sentencing, the jury had to decide whether to give Breard life in prison or death. That determination is always challenging, and according to U.S. and Virginia law, jurors cannot make it arbitrarily. Instead, they must weigh the case’s “aggravating factors,” or those reflecting the unique odiousness of the crime, against its “mitigating factors,” or those reflecting impaired decision-making or poor mental health. Then they must determine which “outweighs” the other. If, in even one juror’s mind, the mitigators overpower the aggravators, a death sentence cannot be dispensed.
Investigating a client’s background to gather mitigating evidence is the job of the defense attorneys, and it’s an exacting one. The American Bar Association requires every capital defense team to employ at least two attorneys, a professional investigator, and a mitigation specialist. At trial, they must show that they’ve conducted an exhaustive investigation of every aspect of the defendant’s life that “may provide a basis for a sentence less than death.”
Perhaps most importantly, in effective mitigation, attorneys do not merely list their clients’ life circumstances. They interpret them. In one federal death-penalty case in Louisiana, for example, the lawyers conducting mitigation for defendant Johnny Davis called two psychiatrists to the stand during sentencing to explore how their client’s life circumstances could have affected his decision-making capacities. They explained the science of trauma and post-traumatic stress and how head injuries sustained before mental maturity can cause long-term impairment. They walked the jury through an extensive set of personality and intelligence tests they had administered on the defendant, creating a complete picture of his mental life. And they presented extensive documentation corroborating the defendant’s life circumstances and explicating their effects on mental functioning. Davis got life, not death.
Breard got none of this. The record of his mitigation is thin. In the early 1990s, legal and professional standards around mitigation were considerably looser, but even still, Breard’s court-appointed lawyers, McCue and his associate Robert Tomlinson, presented little in the way of mitigation. This is, in essence, the extent of what the jury heard:
No medical or school records were presented to corroborate this testimony. No experts explained to the jury how trauma and brain injuries might have affected his decision-making abilities (which they certainly could have). Two psychiatrists spoke at the beginning of Breard’s guilt phase, but only to testify that they believed him competent to stand trial; they never returned for mitigation. Eight of Breard’s loved ones submitted written declarations to the court, but they all said basically the same thing: Breard was a good boy, and a good man, and he had simply made a mistake. Breard’s car accidents, alcoholism, and untreated fever were hardly addressed at all.
Most shockingly, Breard’s lawyers presented no follow-up on Breard’s claim that he had been driven by a Satanic curse, no investigation of psychological problems or cultural differences that might have led him to this understanding of what had caused him to kill.
“The case was an uphill battle,” McCue told me in an interview almost thirty years later, “given the decision he’d made to testify. And the Satanic curse business.”
At the conclusion of the trial, before reading aloud Breard’s sentence, Judge Sheridan asked Breard if there was anything he wished to say. He asked if he could read from the Bible. Judge Sheridan assented. The passage he chose was from the Book of Micah.
Mr. Breard: Because of their sins, the only way to not the law forgive them if they are. . . .
Judge Sheridan: You take your time. If you want some water, they’ll get that for you. Do it in your own way.
Mr. Breard: Therefore I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my case, my cause, and execute judgement for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness.
On August 20, 1993, Judge Sheridan affirmed the jury’s decision: Breard was sentenced to death.
Years before the lawyers began their investigation, Carol was undertaking her own. While getting to know the man who would become her husband, Carol came to understand things that Breard’s lawyers, and the jurors in his case, never would. Carol recognized Breard’s charm and intelligence. But she also knew that Breard’s two car accidents had been extremely traumatic—both physiologically and emotionally. She knew that Breard’s drinking began suddenly; he had hardy drunk at all during most of their relationship. And it hadn’t escaped Carol’s notice that Breard maintained an air of inviolable secrecy around his childhood—and especially about his father, whose untimely death had precipitated Breard’s move to the United States.
In Miami, at Christmas 1987, Carol came to understand exactly what Breard was hiding.
I asked Carol to recount what happened in Miami, and her description only partly matched the court’s. Carol remembers the visit going well at first. It was her parents’ first time meeting their son-in-law, and her first time meeting her mother- and sister-in-law. Around midday on December 23, Carol remembers sipping coffee with Breard’s mother, Armenia, in the house’s breakfast nook. “People had gone out to do different things that day,” so she and Armenia, plus Breard upstairs, were the only ones home.
Out of nowhere, Carol recalled, Armenia began to apologize. “I don’t remember how it started,” Carol said. “Now I could put all sorts of grandiose ideas on it that she was trying to warn me or give me insight into who he was.” Armenia apologized for failing to intervene, for letting it go on for so long. She said she regretted her complicity in all the violence.
“What violence?” Carol asked.
In a hushed voice, Armenia described a shocking pattern of domestic abuse. “What his mother described was a physical brutality by the father on her, and the father forcing the children to watch. The father being—I can’t describe it right—training his sons to be strong men. Like grooming them, but not with sex. A ‘follow in my footsteps’ kind of thing. ‘This is how men act. This is how you control women. You need to keep control.’”
Before Armenia could say anything more, Breard stormed into the kitchen. “I don’t remember seeing him until I heard him,” Carol said. “He came flying into the breakfast area in an absolute rage.” He was yelling, berating the women for talking about his father. That’s when Breard began to hit his mother.
“She immediately became subservient. She moved away and he kind of followed her. I had the feeling that they went into the backyard or front. I didn’t hear the entire thing. I didn’t want to.” Breard spiraled, and the violence continued into the next day.
That evening, Carol’s father told Breard he needed to leave. “That’s when Angel grabbed me and tried to drag me out of the house,” Carol recounted. “When I wouldn’t let him, he hit me several times. And that was all it took, that’s where it was over and done.” After Breard finally left the house, Carol and her father hopped on a last-minute flight to Washington, D.C., and moved Carol’s belongings out of the apartment she shared with Breard.
“Those two days, Angel showed me who he was and why he was doing the things he did,” Carol said. Old memories began to take on new meaning. All the gestures Carol had viewed as expressions of Breard’s love—filling the gas, doing the shopping, running all the errands that would have required her to leave the house—began to look more like means of control. “When he couldn’t control something, he would become extremely agitated and almost disconnected with reality,” she continued. She remembered a time, a couple weeks before Christmas, when she and Breard went to a convenience store to check the numbers on a lottery ticket he’d purchased the week before. When Breard saw that only three of the seven numbers he chose—numbers he had been oddly confident would win—had been drawn, he broke down. “He ranted and railed and stormed off. He moped and was completely out of sorts for the entire day and didn’t go to work the entire week.” It seemed that Breard genuinely believed he could control the outcome of the lottery, Carol said. When he felt that power slip away, he was incensed.
Carol believes that Breard never told her about the abuse in his past because he wanted to retain control over exactly how his wife perceived him. And she believes Breard got so angry at his mother because she took that control away from him. Breard wanted his wife to think of him as strapping and in command. But that tableau of Breard’s youth—a father hitting a mother, teaching a child all the wrong lessons about what it means to be a man—would invite judgments Breard could not control.
After Christmas in Miami, Carol tried to move on with her life. She finished college, got remarried, had a child. Breard remained in the back of her mind, she said, and she once received a haunting phone call from someone claiming to be associated with him, but she felt mostly free of him.
Until the summer of 1993, when she received a letter from Breard’s lawyers. The letter asked if Carol would testify as part of Breard’s mitigation and present anything she knew that might affect the jury’s assessment. Yes, Carol thought, she knew how the brain injuries had affected Breard. She knew about the sudden drinking. She knew about the childhood abuse.
But she trusted that the lawyers would find what they needed without her. “I didn’t want to bring it all back up,” she told me, “the emotional stress I’d gone through, that my whole family had gone through.” Surely there was documentary evidence or family testimony that would reveal Breard’s history, she reasoned. Carol did not respond to the letter.
Article 4 of the Paraguayan constitution reads:
Of the Right to Life: The right to life is inherent to the human person. Its protection is guaranteed. . . . All persons will be protected by the State in their physical and psychic integrity, as well as in their honor and their reputation.
This article is a promise, made by the Republic of Paraguay to its citizens. But in 1993, as one such citizen stood on the precipice of death in Virginia, his government was not given the opportunity to defend him.
That’s because not a single U.S. official sent notice to the Paraguayan government that one of its own was facing a death sentence. The Arlington County police officer who conducted Breard’s arrest, the prosecutors who built a case against him, the judge who allowed a guilty verdict and a sentence of death—they all could have notified the Paraguayan government of Breard’s position and given it the opportunity to support his defense.
But they did not. As a result, Breard was robbed of his rights under international law and denied the thorough mitigation that could have saved his life.
Jeff Bleich, a lawyer and diplomat who wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the International Law Association condemning Breard’s death sentence, told me that, if properly notified, Paraguay could have intervened in Breard’s case in any number of ways. Breard’s hospital records, school records, relatives, teachers, and friends were all in Asunción, 4,500 miles from Virginia, in a language not spoken by the court. “If you’re the government of Paraguay, and it’s one of your people, you will likely have resources that won’t be available to a Virginia public defender,” Bleich continued.
And what you would say to a consular official from your own country, as opposed to a member of the legal system of a country you’re less familiar with, is going to be very, very different. If I’m being held in a prison in another country and they tell me I’m liable to the death penalty, and then a lawyer comes up to me and says, ‘I’m your friend, I’m your public defender,’ are you going to believe them? Are you going to trust that they’re going to protect you? As opposed to someone from your country whose actual job is to protect you from being killed abroad?
Breard’s attorneys had never navigated Paraguay’s bureaucracies, studied its laws, or experienced its culture. Compared to a U.S.-born defendant, Breard was disadvantaged from the start.
The first time I spoke to Carol was in March 2021. It was a cold call, and she was surprised when I told her I was a journalist planning to write a story about her ex-husband. She told me she hadn’t heard Breard’s name spoken aloud in years.
I remember at the time of the sentencing thinking that he needed to die. I wanted him gone. I didn’t want him or any of his associates near me ever. That was my hurt and my anger and my fear.
Our conversation started out stiff. But she was willing to talk, she said, as long as I didn’t use her last name.
You know, it’s interesting what we’ve been seeing on the news over the last year . . . the point where families stop wanting pure revenge and start wanting justice. There’s a turning point. It’s a point where you need to stop because if not it will eat you alive. For me, with Angel, that point was many years later.
I could tell Carol was talking to me from her car. There was a quiet whooshing in the background as she drove.
. . . hmm, weird connection. I have three adopted children, and the oldest one—let me get this straight, none of my kids did what Angel did—but my oldest, he went down the wrong path. Alcohol, drugs, gangs, out of control. He hit rock bottom. The first time I picked him up from the police station and took him to rehab, it was like, he does OK, looks like he’s doing better, then down he goes again. The second time, the people in my life are like, ‘Are you sure?’ The third time was, ‘Kick his damn ass to the curb! You don’t need to help him.’ And the fourth time it was, ‘Why do you even answer the phone when he calls?’
I asked her where she was going. She told me she was driving home to the Northeast. I asked her where she was coming from. “I’m actually driving from Virginia.”
People said I should just cut my son out. He was taking advantage of me, manipulating me. They said, ‘You gotta just act like he’s dead.’ And I couldn’t. Because he was my son. And that triggered, slowly, this recollection of what I felt when they sentenced [Breard]. I thought, ‘What if that happened with my son?’ I mean, let me be clear, he never raped or murdered anyone, but even still people were ready to throw him away with the trash. . . . Sometimes I’d be like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ And then I’d turn around and say, ‘He’s my son. I mean, how do you do that?’ I don’t know. I don’t know.
She had just dropped her son off at his sister’s house in Virginia. She thought that putting him in a new setting, away from the dealers and gang members he knew, would help him get a fresh start. She said he was a dumbass, but she loved him.
I do not believe in executions. I fervently believe that people like [Breard] should be locked away forever, but I don’t believe in the death penalty. Here was this personal case where I should have been jumping up and down, cheering from the rooftops, and all I could think was, But we shouldn’t do it that way. I still feel that way.
For most of our conversation, Carol spoke quickly. But now, her speech was slow. I asked where she was in her journey. She had just passed Silver Spring, where she and Breard once lived together.
I don’t think about Angel often. But when I do, I always send up a prayer and say, ‘Lord, just help me remove the anger and hatred from my heart.’
As Breard’s case moved from trial to appeals, Michele Brace, an attorney at the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center (VCRRC), was privy to almost every detail. The VCRRC assists attorneys representing people facing death sentences, and Brace had been in close contact with Breard’s public defenders. One day several months after the trial, while reading a legal newsletter from WestLaw Brace came across a blurb about the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. “Immediately, I thought of [Breard],” she said. His rights, she realized, had been violated, and he had real grounds for appeal. “I’d love to say I spent a lot of time in the library and already knew all about [the Convention],” she said, “but it was pure serendipity.”
She called William Broaddus, a well-known attorney at the Richmond law firm McGuire Woods, and left a message explaining what she’d found. “And then this lawyer called me back and said, ‘I love the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations!’ And that opened up a door that I don’t believe [Breard’s lawyers] had considered before.”
Broaddus and his team took over Breard’s case in 1995. The next year, Breard and the Republic of Paraguay filed separate suits in federal court, each alleging that, by denying Breard the opportunity to be supported by his home country, Virginia officials had violated their rights.
“[The Vienna Convention] works both ways,” Broaddus told me, summarizing the argument he presented to the court. “It helps the attorneys bridge a cultural divide and get information and understand the environment in which [the defendant] grew up. And it also helps the accused understand what he’s facing. A more vigorous defense could have been presented.”
Breard and Paraguay’s suits climbed the judicial ladder, but both faced procedural challenges at every rung.
Meanwhile, Jim Gilmore, the governor of Virginia, was growing impatient. For years, Breard’s appeals had been stalling his execution. Intent on finishing the job, Gilmore announced that he had selected a final execution date: April 14, 1998.
Outraged and without further recourse in U.S. courts, Paraguayan officials devised one last way to demand that their rights, and Breard’s, be respected. On April 3, 1998, the Republic of Paraguay sued the United States in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial body of the United Nations. Paraguay’s complaint alleged continued violations of international law and demanded a stay of Breard’s execution.
Six days later, the ICJ enjoined the United States to “take all measures at its disposal to ensure that the Paraguayan national concerned was not executed.”
Four days later, Secretary of State Madeline Albright wrote a letter to Governor Gilmore urging him to use his gubernatorial clemency powers to stay the execution. “The execution of Mr. Breard in the present circumstances could lead some countries to contend incorrectly that the U.S. does not take seriously its obligations under the Convention,” Albright wrote.
The next day, the international community turned its attention to Governor Gilmore. Dozens of people called into radio stations across Virginia to demand on air that Gilmore halt the execution. The final decision was his. The execution was to happen that night.
The whole day, Broaddus and his team were hard at work, doing, Broaddus said, “everything we possibly could.” They had filed petitions for a stay of execution in the Supreme Court weeks in advance, but hours before the execution was to take place, Broaddus was still in his office awaiting a response by fax.
“I wrote [Breard] a note that I wouldn’t be able to be there at the execution because I was waiting for the response,” Broaddus told me. “I concluded the note by referring to the Gospel where Christ was crucified, ‘This day you will be with me in paradise.’ My young associate gave that to Angel, who had become very religious in prison, and his only response was, ‘At last, a lawyer who preaches the Gospel to me.’”
There is no way to know what Governor Gilmore was thinking that night when the Supreme Court denied Breard’s petition for a stay of execution, when Breard was marched from his cell to the execution chamber at Greensville Correctional Center, when the corded phone that is the governor’s direct line to the chamber did not ring and Angel Francisco Breard was executed.
Breard’s case had been all over the news, so Carol stopped reading the newspaper and watching TV. She told her family that, whatever happened, she didn’t want to know.
But one day a couple weeks after the execution, while Carol’s father was working beside her at their family business, he broke the news. “When my father told me that Angel had been executed, it did not sit well with me,” Carol told me. She thought back to the letter she’d received from Breard’s lawyers and worried that, maybe, she could have made the difference in Breard’s sentencing.
Of her decision to not testify as part of Breard’s mitigation, Carol told me, “That’s my cross to bear.”
“Is it?” I all but yelled over the phone when she said this, barely clutching my composure. I was shocked. After being a victim of assault at Breard’s hands, did Carol really think this was her responsibility?
Over the last year, that question has stuck with me. Was it really Carol’s responsibility to testify on behalf of the man who assaulted her? To relive her deepest traumas? To save Breard?
I posed this question to Broaddus, Bleich, and the half-dozen other legal experts I consulted. They all answered, emphatically, no. That responsibility wasn’t Carol’s, they said. It was the United States’—a responsibility to enforce a treaty that our government voluntarily signed, to honor the rules we’ve made to protect the criminally accused and convicted, and to safeguard the right to remain alive. The Supreme Court has made clear that this right is not forfeited unless, through thorough mitigation, every possible stone has been turned. In Breard’s case, we’ll never know what more digging could have been done, how many stones remained unturned.
We do know of at least one such stone. When I asked Broaddus about the abuse Carol described, he seemed surprised. “I don’t recall being aware of childhood abuse,” Broaddus said. “Would it have influenced a jury? I don’t know. You only need to convince one and have that person, as in Twelve Angry Men, convince the others.”
If the question of life or death for the criminally convicted is an unpersuasive one for U.S. officials, then let them be compelled by this: Breard was not the only one affected by the violation of international law in this case. Carol, a victim, was too. Every day, she walks around believing that Breard’s death is her cross to bear. It is not.
Although thousands of foreign nationals are arrested in the United States each year, the U.S. government has never established a formal procedure for notifying their home countries. When Breard was arrested and tried, there was no law specifying whose responsibility it was to notify Paraguay of his arrest. Perhaps the arresting officer assumed the prosecutor would do the notifying, and the prosecutor assumed it would be the sheriff, and so on. Or perhaps none of them even knew that Paraguay had to be notified.
Ten years after Breard’s execution, the Supreme Court finally weighed in on Article 36 of the Vienna Convention. In Medellín v. Texas (2008), the Court declared that, while the Vienna Convention constitutes an international commitment, it does not necessarily constitute a domestic one. That is, because of federalism, no particular state actor has the responsibility of enforcing its provisions. It’s hard to see the rights guaranteed by the Vienna Convention, then, as anything but nominal: they exist, but they are no one’s job to uphold.
Although some law enforcement agencies do choose to honor noncitizens’ Vienna Convention rights (for example, the Arlington County Police Department, which arrested Breard, now has a policy about home-country notification), they—and the many law enforcement agencies that do not have such policies—are subject to no legal accountability.
Today, there are 122 foreign nationals under sentence of death in the United States. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, U.S. officials notified home-country officials in only two of their cases. My aim is not to downplay the seriousness of their crimes (or Breard’s)—though at least three insist they are innocent. Rather, what Breard’s story—and, by extension, Carol’s—illustrates is that U.S. noncompliance has very real ripple effects. The rights of criminal defendants are not legal technicalities. They have profound human effects—on defendants and on the people (sometimes victims) whom they leave behind.
Matt Nadel is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in New York. His writing has appeared in Scalawag, Palm Beach Post, and Soft Punk, among other publications. His most recent criminal-justice documentary, 120 YEARS, won Best Short Documentary at the Pan African Film Festival, the largest Black film fest in the United States. Matt was born and raised in Florida and is a graduate of Yale’s American Studies program.
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