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August 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Should The Federal Government Stop Seeking The Death Penalty

Within the past few weeks, the U.S. Justice Department’s policy of increasingly seeking the death penalty in federal criminal prosecutions has been in the news both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland.

This week, the New York Times reported that Boston federal judge Mark L. Wolf questioned the government’s application of capital punishment in a murder trial that he presided over. Although he allowed the trial to proceed and did not question the constitutionality of the penalty, he pointed out that recent forensic techniques are proving that many previously condemned persons are innocent. "In the past decade," the judge wrote, "substantial evidence has emerged to demonstrate that innocent individuals are sentenced to death, and undoubtedly executed, much more often that previously understood."

In spite of Judge Wolf’s concern, a majority of Americans favor the death penalty although their numbers are declining. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed a significant decline in support for the death penalty, as 64% of respondents supported the punishment compared to 78% in 1996. In addition, the poll found that fewer respondents who favored capital punishment felt strongly about their support (28% today compared to 43% in 1996), while a growing number of Americans are voicing opposition to the punishment altogether (30% today compared to 18% in 1996).

Initiatives to remove death as a penalty appropriate to certain crimes have not advanced in spite of significant efforts by religious and secular groups to see it occur. Most politicians are paralyzed into inaction by the outcries from victim’s families clamoring for "closure" by the execution of the person responsible for the crime. There is also the fear of being "soft on crime" or "pampering criminals." Mass media coverage of crimes of murder and mayhem tend to sensationalize the most gruesome aspects of the crime and to demonize the alleged perpetrator. Prosecutors are badgered by reporters to declare if the death penalty is to be sought. Its absence as potential punishment is often perceived as a failure to hold sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction in the case.

The death penalty controversy has gripped Puerto Rico over the past several years, as the trial of drug dealers, Hector Oscar Acosta Martinez and Joel Rivera Alejandro became the object of a clash between federal law and Puerto Rico’s constitution. The two had been indicted for the 1998 murder and dismemberment of Jorge Hernandez Diaz, a convenience store owner and suspected confederate of the two men. The federal government wished to seek the death penalty in the case, whereas local law precluded application of capital punishment on the island.

The case was to be the first of 59 cases in Puerto Rico in which federal prosecutors have invoked the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act, which expanded the types of federal crimes for which people in any state or territory of the U.S. can receive a death sentence. Offences include murder of certain government officials, kidnapping resulting in death, murder for hire, fatal drive-by shootings, sexual abuse crimes resulting in death, car jacking resulting in death, and certain crimes not resulting in death, including the running of a large-scale drug enterprise.

The ensuing battle in Puerto Rico to finally permit the trial to be held on the federal government’s terms involved divergent opinions in the lower courts and a final resolution by the U.S. Supreme Court, holding that federal statute trumped local law, a decision that enraged most all Puerto Rican politicians and many sectors of the island population.

The subsequent trial prompted protests against the death penalty on the island. Gov. Sila Calderon told the Los Angeles Times that the case demonstrated the need to further reform the U.S. - Puerto Rican relationship and Arturo Luis Davila Toro, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, told the Times reporter that "We don't believe in capital punishment, and they are trying to impose it on us." In truth, many states find themselves in the same situation. Their constitutions preclude the death penalty in state trials, but that is no impediment to federal prosecutors who seek capital punishment in federal courts located within those states.

Since the beginning of the George W. Bush administration, the Justice department, headed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, has aggressively sought death penalty convictions, although juries in 19 of the last 20 federal capital trials have declined to impose it. Commenting on the trend to the New York Times (06/15/03), former U.S. Attorney Alan Vinegrad noted, "It reflects that the tide is turning in this country with regard to attitudes about the death penalty. There has been so much publicity about wrongfully convicted defendants on death row that people sitting on juries are reluctant to impose the ultimate sanction."

In a stunning conclusion to the Acosta/Rivera trial, a jury of 12 Puerto Ricans acquitted the two men of the kidnapping and homicide charges, although the strength of evidence presented by the prosecution could have predicted a guilty verdict. Defense lawyers suggested that it was the jury’s repugnance of the death penalty and resentment of the federal imposition of its law over Puerto Rican law that inclined the jurors to acquit. Neither assertion can be proven, but up-coming federal trials seeking the death penalty in Puerto Rico may provide evidence of a trend.

Death penalty opponents cite the disproportionate number of minority defendants sentenced to die in federal execution chambers, raising the specter of prejudicial tendencies among prosecutors and jurors. Of the 211 federal death penalty prosecutions authorized by Attorneys General since 1988, 75% have been against minorities. Another factor in the shift in attitudes away from application of the death penalty is the increasing number of death row inmates released over the past several years when evidence used against them at their trials crumbled in the face of new DNA testing.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, nine death row inmates have been exonerated this year, the highest number in 15 years. Three men who spent a combined 67 years on death row were freed recently, bringing to 111 the number of inmates who have been released from death row since 1973. Recently, a man was released from a Missouri prison after 17 years on death row. The discovery of inaccurate testimony from witnesses helped free him from a conviction in the 1985 murder of a fellow inmate. Six inmates from Illinois, Louisiana and Florida have been freed this year. Judge Wolf’s cautionary words resonate among death penalty opponents as each new death row inmate walks away from a prison, in some cases just months away from an impending execution.

This week Herald readers may add their voices to the death penalty debate. Please choose one of the following options as being your preference. The question is, "Do you support or oppose the federal government’s application of the death penalty in capital cases?"

Please vote above.

This Week's Question:
Do you support or oppose the federal government’s application of the death penalty in capital cases?

(US Mainland Residents, please vote on the left; PR Residents on right)

US . Residents
. PR
I support it
I oppose it

Current Results


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