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PUERTO RICO REPORT
ECHEVARRIA CASE EXPOSES JUSTICE DOUBLE STANDARDS
by Robert Becker
March 9, 2001
In a recent matinee performance at the Guaynabo Performing Arts Center, the crowd of middle class theater goers stood and cheered for actress Lydia Echevarria, the star of The Convicts, a play about life in prison.
It was an ironic moment in Guaynabo, the San Juan suburb whose residents boast the highest per capita income in Puerto Rico. The fans had sallied forth from their posh homes in Guaynabos gated communities to cheer on a convicted murderer.
The Echevarria case, full of soap-operatic twists and turns, shows there are two standards of justice in Puerto Rico: one for the rich, famous and well-connected; and another for everyone else.
Echevarrias return to the stage, little more than a year after receiving a commutation of her sentence for the first degree murder of her husband, has triggered screaming newspaper headlines, intense TV news coverage and an avalanche of phone calls to talk radio programs. Adding to the bizarre atmospherics, Echevarria in the production plays Maggie, a woman sentenced to 99 years in prison for killing her husband.
It was a reprise of a role Echevarria played on stage 20 years ago, just before the horrific events that led to her imprisonment.
Echevarria, now 70, was in her heyday one of Puerto Ricos best-known actresses on stage and television. She was married to TV personality and producer Luis Vigoreaux.
On Jan. 17, 1983, Vigoreaux was kidnapped by two thugs, driven to a remote area outside of San Juan, and then repeatedly stabbed with an ice pick and bludgeoned with a tire iron. While Vigoreaux was still alive, drug addict David Lopez Watts and male model Francisco Papo Newmann stuffed him into the trunk of the Mercedes, doused the car with gasoline and set it ablaze. The autopsy report showed Vigoreaux was roasted alive.
The police tracked down the kidnappers, who said Echevarria paid them the princely sum of $2,500 for the murder. It came to light that Vigoreaux had a fashion-model mistress, and was planning to divorce his wife and marry the younger woman. He was murdered the day his divorce decree was supposed to be finalized.
After a sensational trial, Echevarria was convicted in July, 1986, for first degree murder and kidnapping. She received a 208-year sentence, which she began serving at the Vega Alta Womens womens jail. Ultimately, she served 13 1/2 years.
Echevarria numbered among her friends wealthy and influential people in business and the arts. They campaigned continuously for her release. On March 7, 1996, during the observation of Women s Week, the Puerto Rico Senate voted 21-0 urging her release. Finally, Gov. Pedro Rossello on Jan. 27, 2000 commuted her sentence.
Rossellos commutation was almost as controversial as Echevarrias return to the stage. While he had once said that he would not extend clemency to anyone convicted of a violent crime or drug trafficking, his commutation violated that pledge. Moreover, despite a mountain of evidence, Echevarria has steadfastly refused to admit her part in the murder, and has never expressed remorse.
Rossello told me, in a December, 2000 interview in his office, that he released Echevarria for humanitarian reasons -- her declining health. He said the commutation was an exception to his long-held policy, and that Echevarria presented no danger to the community.
Echevarrias actions since her release have made a mockery of the commutation. The convict in declining health told reporters after her March 4 matinee performance that her knees bothered her but that otherwise she felt fine.
Echevarria had applied to the Puerto Rico Parole Board to extend her curfew from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. so she could do evening performances, but she was turned down.
A sizable bloc of public opinion is favorable to Echevarria. In a telephone survey conducted by the San Juan Star around the time of her performance, 46 percent of the respondents said they disagreed with the Parole Boards denial of her request to extend her curfew.
One of Vigoreauxs children, Roberto Vigoreaux, is a member of the Puerto Rico legislature. Distressed by his mothers conduct, he has prompted legislative hearings to demand the release of her medical records.
Celeste Benitez, a former Popular Democratic Party senator, said Echevarrias release from jail was unsupportable, as evidenced by her complete lack of rehabilitation.
Echevarria indeed remains unrepentant, even defiant, about the murder and her public notoriety, When a Channel 11-TV reporter asked her in a recent on-camera interview about the murder, she stormed off the set.
On stage, while making her curtain call to her cheering fans in Guaynabo, the murderess did a few dance steps before heading for the wings.
Robert Becker, Managing Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: email@example.com