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For Puerto Rico, Case Is Life, Death
Island aims to keep US from imposing capital punishment
By Richard Chacon
March 26 2001
SAN JUAN - The case of United States v. Acosta Martinez began as a grisly drug-related murder trial, but it has become the center of an important constitutional dispute between Puerto Rico and Washington.
For years, leaders of Puerto Rico's political, religious, and intellectual establishment have tried unsuccessfully to stop federal prosecutors from asking for the death penalty in criminal cases, arguing in part that capital punishment violates the commonwealth's 50-year-old constitution.
But not until the Acosta Martinez case, now pending before a federal appeals court in Boston, have death penalty opponents here come so close to getting what they want.
''We now have the legal channel we've always needed to make our argument,'' said Juan Pablo de Leon, a law professor specializing in civil rights at the University of Puerto Rico. ''It isn't over yet by any means, and we may end up in the Supreme Court before this is resolved. But at least we now have a forum where we can make ourselves heard.''
Since the Federal Death Penalty Act passed in 1994, capital punishment for certain crimes has applied in all 50 states. In Massachusetts, Kristen Gilbert, a former nurse, is waiting for a jury to decide whether she should be executed for poisoning four patients at a Northampton veterans hospital.
Prosecutors in Puerto Rico, using the federal statute, have asked for Justice Department permission to seek the death penalty against 14 defendants. That's more than in any other US jurisdiction except eastern Virginia, which has the death penalty. Puerto Rico doesn't, and most residents oppose capital punishment, according to public opinion surveys.
Last summer, a federal judge in San Juan ruled that the federal law cannot be applied in Puerto Rico because it conflicts with the island's constitution, which prohibits capital punishment. Overruling that provision, the judge stated, would violate a defendant's rights to due process.
In June 1999, authorities charged Hector Oscar Acosta Martinez and an accomplice, Joel Rivera Alejandro, with fatally shooting another man and hacking his body to pieces because he had informed police about their alleged drug activities.
Because of the multiple crimes involved, federal prosecutors followed their usual strategy and asked the judge, Salvador Casellas, for the death penalty for both defendants. Casellas denied the request, marking the first time a federal judge in Puerto Rico had rejected a death penalty petition on constitutional grounds.
In his decision, Casellas said that because Puerto Rico is a self-governing commonwealth, a federal law that conflicts directly with its constitution is ''locally inapplicable.'' He said the commonwealth should be excluded from the Death Penalty Act just as Native American reservations have been exempted.
''Applying the federal death penalty in Puerto Rico unilaterally, without the consent of its people,'' violates the rights of defendants, Casellas ruled.
But the Justice Department has argued that all federal laws, including the death penalty, apply to Puerto Rico unless Congress specifically excludes it from a statute.
''The federal death penalty provisions are found in the federal criminal code of criminal procedures,'' said Chris Watney, a department spokeswoman in Washington. ''Those rules are applicable to all states, territories, commonwealths, or districts within US jurisdiction. That includes Puerto Rico.''
No death penalty has been carried out in Puerto Rico since 1927, and local lawmakers banned government executions two years after that.
In 1950, the US Congress passed a law that established Puerto Rico as a commonwealth, creating a new government and constitution. But that law also included a caveat, borrowed from another federal law on Puerto Rico that dated back to 1900, which stated that federal laws that were ''not locally inapplicable'' would apply in Puerto Rico. Congress never explained what that meant.
''It's confusing language, but it's the basis of everyone's argument about the death penalty,'' said Jaime Ruberte, president of the island's bar association, which opposes capital punishment.
There have been other instances in which federal laws have clashed with Puerto Rican statutes or local customs, and those debates have usually been settled by courts or Congress. Local authorities are prohibited from using wiretaps to collect evidence, for example, but federal agents are not. And in 1976, Puerto Rico successfully lobbied for exclusion from a federal law that outlawed cockfighting, a favorite local activity.
''Roosters fighting isn't about constitutional rights, but the death penalty is,'' said Jose Ortiz-Daliot, a former representative of the Puerto Rican government in Washington and now a member of the commonwealth's senate.
Capital punishment does have some supporters in Puerto Rico - mostly law enforcement officials and politicians who also favor statehood.
''These people say they don't want the death penalty, but what if something happened to one of their loved ones, how would they feel then?'' one man said angrily on a local radio talk show last week.
As with almost every aspect of the complicated relationship between this island of 4 million residents and the United States, the death penalty dispute isn't just about legislative intent. For many here, it's also about identity and a frequent clash of cultures between the Caribbean island and its guardian.
''We should have the freedom to preserve our constitution without having to defend our every move,'' added Ortiz-Daliot. ''It's a relationship that still has too many colonial vestiges.''