The Serbian government is asking a US court to block the execution of one of its citizens, saying its consulate was not informed of his 1994 arrest as required by international law.
Serbia, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed last week in court in Reno, maintains the notification would have provided Avram Nika with assistance that could have spared him the death penalty.
Nika, 41, is on death row at Ely State Prison for the 1994 killing of a good samaritan who stopped to help him along Interstate 80 near Reno. He has yet to exhaust his state and US federal appeals.
Nika was convicted for shooting Edward Smith in the forehead at point-blank range. Smith was on his way home to Fallon when he stopped about 32km east of Reno to help Nika, whose car had broken down.
Nika was “particularly vulnerable to the denial of consular assistance due to his inability to speak English and his lack of familiarity with the US legal system and culture,” the country’s brief says.
The failure to notify the consulate caused no mitigating evidence to be presented at his sentencing hearing — such as that he was a hard-working family man who came from poverty and was discriminated against because he was a member of a nomadic ethnic group known as Roma, also called Gypsies, according to the document.
District Attorney Dick Gammick said there was no consulate to contact because the former Yugoslavia where Nika was from was undergoing drastic change at the time. Serbia did not exist as a country then, he said, and other countries in the region came and went.
“If they can be so kind as to tell us which consulate we were supposed to notify, we would have an issue,” Gammick said. “There was no one to contact, there was no consulate. It was a physical impossibility for us to do what he demanded us to do.”
It’s not the first time a foreign government has appealed to US courts on behalf of one of their citizens who wasn’t given the benefit of their consulates.
Last month, Mexico’s government unsuccessfully petitioned the US Supreme Court to stay a Texas execution to allow the US Congress time to consider legislation that would require court reviews for condemned foreign nationals who aren’t offered the help of their consulates. The high court rejected the request 5-4 and the Mexican citizen was executed.
Mexico protested and the UN’s top human rights official said the US broke international law when it executed Humberto Leal for a 1994 rape and murder.
“The state of Nevada must face up to its deplorable failings in this case and order a new trial,” group spokeswoman Katherine Bekesi said, adding the Serbian consulate could have provided Nika translation, legal advice and key mitigating evidence.
Michael Pescetta, a federal public defender representing Nika, said the courts would have to decide whether Nika was harmed by a lack of access to consular services.
“We are pleased the Serbian government is interested in the case ... and we are certainly hopeful their participation will help,” Pescetta said. “It’s a situation in which enforcement by the country of its rights may be important to the litigation.”