Debevoise Secures Historic Release of Death Row Inmate after Victory before the International Court of Justice

26 May 2020

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP has secured the release of César Roberto Fierro Reyna and his return to Mexico after over 40 years of imprisonment on death row in Texas. The firm’s representation of Mr. Fierro began with the case before the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”), in which Mexico alleged that the United States had violated the rights of 52 Mexican nationals under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations ((Avena and Other Mexican Nationals (Mexico v. United States)). While Debevoise prevailed before the ICJ, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declined to recognize the ICJ’s ruling as binding on U.S. courts. Debevoise then joined the Texas-based team that had for a number of years been representing Mr. Fierro.

In 1979, Mr. Fierro was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of an El Paso, Texas, taxi driver. The conviction rested on his confession and the testimony of an eyewitness, who claimed to have been present during the crime. In 1996, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (“TCCA”), reviewing a trial court decision in Fierro’s favor, affirmed the suppression of the confession—holding that there was a strong likelihood that it had been coerced. But it went on to hold that the original failure to exclude the confession was harmless error, finding that the testimony of the alleged eyewitness provided an independent basis supporting the conviction. While Mr. Fierro’s counsel continued to advocate for his rights, the TCCA’s ruling appeared to effectively end any hope of overturning his conviction and death sentence.

Debevoise’s direct involvement in the case led to a fresh examination of the facts and a review of changes in the law following the TCCA’s dismissal. In 2018, Mr. Fierro filed a subsequent application for a writ of habeas corpus arguing that forensic analysis and other evidence demonstrated that the state unknowingly relied on the false testimony of the eyewitness during Mr. Fierro’s trial, and that the jury instructions had not allowed for proper consideration by the jury of all mitigating evidence. At the end of 2019, the TCCA vacated his death sentence and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing. In January 2020, Mr. Fierro was resentenced to life in prison with immediate eligibility for parole. The Texas Parole Board quickly granted parole, and Mr. Fierro was released and returned to Mexico on May 14, 2020.

Debevoise Of Counsel John Hall stated, “Mr. Fierro is one of few death row inmates who was released and returned to his home country as a free man. His release marks a sign of hope for those who were wrongfully convicted. It was an honor to have been involved with the team representing Mr. Fierro and securing his return to his family in Mexico after over 40 years of imprisonment.”

The Debevoise team representing Mr. Fierro was led by John Hall, counsel Floriane Lavaud and associates Jennifer Lim, Laura Sinisterra, Ryan Mullally, Molly Baltimore, and Jillian Tancil. Debevoise partners Donald Francis Donovan and Catherine Amirfar represented Mr. Fierro before the ICJ and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Debevoise provides a wide array of pro bono legal services to marginalized communities and underserved populations on matters ranging from landmark international and national disputes to representing low-income individuals in the communities in which we practice and live.