CINCINNATI (CN) - A public defender urged the en banc Sixth Circuit on Thursday to block Mexico from extraditing the suspect behind decade-old murders.
Mexico "cannot let years and years pass before lifting a finger" to prosecute a U.S. citizen, attorney Michael Holley told the court, citing Article 7 of the extradition treaty between the United States and Mexico.
The charges stem from the shooting death of two men at a 2005 New Year's Eve party in the Mexican village of Santa Maria Natividad.
Though the Oaxacan attorney general issued a warrant for the arrest of Avelino Cruz Martinez in connection to the shooting, Martinez was unaware of the warrant, and his family agreed to pay one of the victim's families 50,000 pesos in compensation for the homicide. The agreement was signed by the town clerk.
Martinez had been living in the United States since the 1980s but he returned to the United States after the killings.
Some family members joined him in Lebanon, Tennessee, in 2007, but Martinez's brother and father continued to live in Santa Maria Natividad.
Neither Martinez nor his family was ever informed of the warrant against him, and Martinez became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2010.
Martinez's whereabouts were common knowledge in the village, but the Mexican government waited until 2012 to request his extradition.
Despite the delay, the United States certified Martinez as extraditable in January 2014.
With Martinez challenging his extradition under a 1978 treaty that cites a "lapse of time" as grounds to bar extradition, the Sixth Circuit ruled 2-1 last year that Martinez is protected by the speedy-trial clause of the Sixth Amendment.
Justice Department attorney David Lieberman rejected this assertion today at an en banc rehearing.
"We don't believe the Sixth Amendment applies to the Mexican courts," Lieberman said. "If the government wanted to regulate Mexican proceedings, they wouldn't do so in a benign phrase like 'lapse of time'; by hiding elephants in mouse holes."
Warning about the serious consequences it could see after blocking Martinez's extradition, Lieberman told the federal appeals court to prepare itself for "a major expansion of extradition courts."
Judge Eric Clay scoffed, however, at Lieberman's claim that the precedent would let other fugitives bring arguments similar to that of Martinez after just a one-year delay.
Insisting that "the ruling in this case is narrow," Clay said it would not bring about "the parade of horribles you are imagining."
Holley with the Federal Public Defender's Office told the court that the U.S. crime most analogous to the one with which Martinez was charged in Mexico is second-degree murder.
Though Mexican law has a 40-year statute of limitations on its crime, Holley said a five-year statute of limitations this charge carries began running as soon as Mexican authorities issue the warrant.
The attorney pointed to the 1960 extradition case of George Mylonas, where a federal judge in Alabama blocked Greece from extraditing an immigrant on embezzlement charges.
Judge Bernice Donald asked Holley how much of his case hinges on this precedent. "If Mylonas didn't exist, would that be the end of your case?" the judge asked.
Holley replied, "It is certainly helpful."
Lieberman with the Justice Department meanwhile told the court that, if the Mylonas decision had been a far-reaching one, the government "would have had to go back and amend all of its extradition treaties."
No timetable has been set for the court's decision.
Nine members of the Martinez family were in the courtroom for Wednesday's arguments.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.