|Puerto Rico was riveted this week by a series of high profile trials, as the Senate passed a controversial overhaul of the islands penal code.
One jury acquitted former senator Maribel Rodríguez, who was accused of trying to pocket $2,000 in Senate travel expenses, while another convicted soap opera star Osvaldo Ríos of beating a former girlfriend. Meanwhile, a Dominican judge sentenced television personality Laura Hernández to seven years in prison for conspiring to bring 155 pounds of cocaine to Puerto Rico from the neighboring island. Her husband Marcos Irizarry got 15, accused of being the mastermind of a drug trafficking ring, comprised of six other defendants who got prison terms of between five and 15 years.
The message sent out by these verdicts is as muddy as the Senate passage of a new penal code, which wont be addressed by the House until the next legislative session, and which Gov. Calderón still must sign into law, should the legislation ever make it to her desk.
The Rodríguez verdict appears to be cautionary tale about the abuse of state prosecutorial powers. It should be noted that the Special Independent Prosecutor presented compelling evidence that Rodríguez accepted Senate funds to travel to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City while having some of them paid for by the town of Toa Alta, whose mayor was the senators then husband. The SIP also presented evidence that Rodríguez attempted to justify the Senate outlay of over $2,000 by presenting unpaid itinerary documents as paid receipts and that she only paid back the Senate for the travel expenses after Senate President Antonio Fas Alzamora ordered an audit.
It was only because the Senate auditor also testified that over a dozen other senators had to return expenses turned up as unjustified without facing prosecution that the jury decided to acquit. In the end, the jury bought the defense tale of a politically motivated prosecution ordered by Gov. Calderón, who wanted to show she is serious about her battle against public corruption.
The Ríos case, meanwhile, indicates that celebrity and a charming personality are not enough to shield a person from the consequences of their bad behavior. It also illustrates that a plurality of Puerto Rican society is alarmed over the rising incidence in domestic violence and believes wife-beaters should be punished.
Meanwhile, eight Puerto Ricans were convicted this week in the Dominican Republic on drug-trafficking related charges that will land them in prison for terms ranging from five to 15 years. Perhaps, the soberest reaction to the news this week came from Office of Drug Control Director Luis Zambrana, who said the conviction means that 155 pounds of cocaine did not reach Puerto Rico streets to wreak havoc with island youth.
Why a successful professional like Hernández would involve herself in drug trafficking was one question left on the public. But there was also something distasteful about the case, starting with the fact that the Dominican dealers who sold the drugs to the group of Puerto Ricans were never brought to justice. Footage of the trial, which showed a baby-faced judge seated beside a veteran prosecutor, was foreign to local audiences, and left questions about the integrity of the process. So did a recent visit by Dominican President Hipolito Mejías, who verbally tussled with local reporters after being questioned on his inaction on a U.S. Justice Department extradition request for a prominent businessman wanted locally in connection with a Ports Authority corruption case.
The close-up look at the Dominican justice system this week made the local system shine, showing why being judged by a jury of ones peers is the best way to mete out justice ever devised. The independence of the jury verdicts this week only worked to illustrate this.
But the Hernández case also struck hard locally because of the solidness of the verdict and subsequent sentences. Experts on Dominican law say an appeal victory is highly unlikely. And the seven-year sentence against the television personality is a lot worse than it sounds, as there are no early release or good behavior programs as in Puerto Rico, which allow criminals to win their freedom after only serving a fraction of their sentences. The taxed commonwealth Corrections and Parole Board agencies exasperate the problem by not giving appropriate oversight over the parole process.
Which brings us back to the attempted overhaul of the commonwealth Penal Code. The Popular Democratic Party Senate, and in particular Sen. Eudaldo Báez Galib, should be congratulated for attempting the effort to streamline and update the maze of criminal laws written over the years. There are contradictions between existing laws, several obsolete provisions and deficiencies regarding emerging areas of concerns such as Internet crimes. Its one of the most substantive legislative efforts since the PDP took control of the Capital in January 2001.
The Senate should also be congratulated for passing an amended version which drops as a crime consensual sodomy defined as any type of sex except traditional vaginal-penal sex performed by heterosexual couples. The fact that it did it on a Sunday night, when guaranteed the least press coverage, is another matter.
The unfortunate thing is that the public debate so far has largely centered on the anti-sodomy provision. Not the more important overall of the islands criminal laws.
The New Progressive Party Senate delegation voted against the measure for reasons other than the anti-sodomy statute. Senators complained the measure was passed too hurriedly, that some of the amendments are too lenient, and that it would greatly expand early release possibilities. PDP opponents counter that there have been a series of public hearings over the two-year effort and reject the other charges.
Unfortunately, the sodomy statute has overtaken all other debate. The NPP has worded its opposition to the legislation in ways aimed at appeasing religious groups, which has only fueled the debate over the sodomy law. Thats too bad. The public debate should center on the breadth of the proposed changes, which go well beyond the proposed repeal of a law that has never been enforced.
Both gay rights groups and conservative Christian clergy members are performing a disservice to the public by co-opting the penal code debate and making it a referendum on the sodomy issue.
John Marino, City Editor of The San Juan Star, writes the weekly Puerto Rico Report column for the Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached directly at: Marino@coqui.net