Puerto Ricans Ready To Rally Against Death Penalty Case Broad Coalition Urged
Puerto Ricans Ready To Rally Against Death Penalty Case
BY NANCY SAN MARTIN
June 2, 2003
The first death penalty trial in recent Puerto Rican history is set to begin today, placing federal prosecutors on a collision course with a population adamantly opposed to capital punishment.
The case -- which involves two alleged gang leaders indicted in 1999 on charges of kidnapping, killing and dismembering a man -- is expected to draw protests and unleash a new wave of anti-American sentiment like the years long battle against bombing exercises that ultimately forced the Navy to abandon its target range on Vieques.
That fight emboldened Puerto Ricans who have struggled for decades to assert their identity against the mainland government. Although prosecutors see this as just one more criminal trial -- involving a particularly horrible crime -- the case is viewed by many in Puerto Rico as one more example of the U.S. government acting as a quasi-colonial power in disregard of local laws and customs.
Puerto Rico's Constitution explicitly prohibits the death penalty, as do most countries in Latin America. But even so, federal prosecutors are pushing forward, reviving an issue that Puerto Ricans thought they had settled when capital punishment was abolished in 1929.
To reinforce the point, a provision outlawing the death penalty was written into the Commonwealth Constitution when it was ratified in 1952. In addition, polls have shown that a majority of Puerto Rico's nearly four million population -- which is predominantly Roman Catholic -- oppose capital punishment.
''What this trial signifies is that none of this matters,'' said Juan Pablo De León, president of Citizens Against the Death Penalty in San Juan.
He said the organization has a number of strategies planned, including lobbying the island's legislature to take up the cause and attempting to raise a public furor over the issue. Protests have been held against previous attempts to pursue the death penalty, but this one is expected to draw supporters who also got involved in the Vieques issue.
''Our fight is just beginning,'' De León said. 'We don't want federal prosecutors to ever ask for the death penalty again. We will be on alert and we'll raise a citizens' movement.''
The two defendants in the case -- Héctor Oscar Acosta Martínez and Joel Rivera Alejandro -- are accused of masterminding a kidnapping-for-ransom plot involving the owner of a grocery store in Trujillo Alto, a municipality just southeast of San Juan.
According to the indictment, Acosta and Rivera headed a gang that kidnapped Jorge Hernández Diaz on Feb. 11, 1998. They held him for a day on a $1 million ransom. Hernández was fatally shot ''after learning that police were investigating the abduction.'' The group then used an ax to chop off the corpse's head, arms and legs.
Prosecutors did not return calls seeking comment, and efforts to reach the victim's family were unsuccessful.
The death penalty in this case was dismissed in San Juan by a federal judge, who ruled in 2000 that the federal government could not administer the death penalty in Puerto Rico because it conflicts with the island's Constitution. The ruling was overturned, however, the following year by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
''Puerto Rico has a constitutional prohibition against the death penalty and the government should respect that,'' said Miami attorney William Matthewman, the lawyer for Acosta. ``I'm surprised they're still prosecuting it as a capital case, but that's not my decision. He pled not guilty, and we intend to fight the case and fight the government's attempt to impose the death penalty.''
The federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988. In Puerto Rico, the number of capital cases began to rise after the U.S. Congress approved a major expansion of death-eligible crimes in 1994. But even with the new set of federal capital crimes, previous cases have either been dismissed, plea-bargained for a lesser sentence or altered by prosecutors who decided not to seek the death penalty.
The two defendants are among four prisoners in Puerto Rico currently facing the death penalty, according to the federal public defender's office in San Juan. But at least 72 ''potential'' cases since 1988 have been submitted to the Department of Justice and at least 17 were authorized. None has gone to trial.
Approximately 10.6 percent of all death-eligible federal murder cases in the United States reviewed by the Department of Justice were from the District of Puerto Rico, according to the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, an organization that tracks federal capital cases.
The fact that cases have been kept out of jurors' hands, despite consistent attempts by prosecutors to obtain capital punishment, ''is an illustration of how it's easier to seek the death penalty than it is to get it in a district where people oppose it,'' said David Bruck of the counsel project.
''The message it sends is that while the rest of the world abolishes capital punishment, the United States not only enforces it but pressures states to impose it. It's not a particularly edifying spectacle,'' Bruck said.
''Capital punishment is supposed to reflect the democratic will of the people,'' he said. ``This case is a stark example of the exercise of federal power.''
Broad Coalition Against Death Penalty Urged
June 3, 2003
SAN JUAN (AP) Faced with the possibility that capital punishment may be applied in Puerto Rico, despite the Commonwealth Constitution prohibition of such statue, the Citizens against Penalty organization urged the government, political parties, and other non-gubernatorial organizations to form a coalition to prevent the death penalty from being imposed in the island.
This is due to a dismissal order issued by the federal Supreme Court after a motion presented by two Puerto Ricans accused of kidnapping and murder at the Puerto Rico district court. The Supreme Court determined that the issue "was mature", and as a result, they wouldnt make a decision until a death sentence is issued at the local level.
The death penalty was abolished in 1929 at the local level, and lately, it was forbidden in the Commonwealth Constitution.
However, Hector Oscar Acosta Martinez and Joel Rivera Alejandro are accused of the kidnapping and murder of a Rio Piedras businessman. If the accused are found guilty, they may face the death penalty.
As a result, Citizens against the Death Penalty said on Tuesday, that they will ask Gov. Sila M. Calderon to create a special committee to seek alternatives to the imposition of the death penalty on the island.
In addition, organizations chairman Juan Pablo de Leon said they will write the president and speaker of the legislature demanding to approve a joint resolution that will be sent to the Congress, that will initiate a lobbying process against the unilateral application of the death penalty in Puerto Rico.
"The underlying problem is the islands political status," said De Leon.
He added that the organizations strengths are its relationship with others opposed to the death penalty in the mainland, condemning the federal statue, which allows the imposition of the death penalty for some federal felonies.
In the meantime, de Leon said his organization will follow up on the complaint filed in 1999 to the Human Rights Committee of United Nations in Geneva, Sweden.
Acosta Martinez and Rivera Alejandro appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. Supreme Court, a decision ordered by the Boston First Circuit of Appeals, which determined the death penalty may apply in Puerto Rico, because the island is considered a territory of the U.S.
The case came to public discussion when in July 2000, federal judge Salvador Casellas determined that the accused cannot be sentenced with the death penalty because it represents a violation to the federal statute that reigns the relationship between the island and the mainland, and the Commonwealth Constitution.
Boston Circuit of Appeals revoked Casellas decision.
Acosta Martinez, resident of the Venezuela community in Rio Piedras, and Rivera Alejandro resident of Trujillo Alto, are accused of murdering a businessman from Rio Piedras in February 11, 1998.
They are charged for murder and kidnapping a man, a felony punishable with death according to the Death Penalty Act of 1994.
As a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is subject to the imposition of the federal statute which allows using this sentencing in nearly 60 federal crimes, including espionage, betrayal, murder, homicide, and drug traffic.