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St. Petersburg Times

Death Penalty Imposition

September 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved. 

Puerto Rico has banned capital punishment since 1929. Its Constitution reads: "The death penalty shall not exist.'' But that hasn't stopped Attorney General John Ashcroft from trying to force-feed it to the population anyway. In a case that has caused an uproar in the tiny island commonwealth, Ashcroft's Justice Department sought the death penalty for two men accused of murder and kidnapping.

The case involved two reputed gang members accused of shooting and dismembering a grocer in 1998 after they were not paid a $1-million ransom. The Justice Department claimed it had jurisdiction over this local crime because there was an intentional killing with a firearm. But when federal prosecutors charged the men with capital murder, the public erupted with outrage over Washington's interference. According to polls, a majority of the island's 4-million residents - mostly Catholic - oppose the death penalty.

Such utter disregard for local sentiment has been a hallmark of Ashcroft's tenure.

The attorney general has insisted that the death penalty be applied even in those states that do not have capital punishment, and the department under Ashcroft has repeatedly set aside the recommendations of local federal prosecutors. That's bad enough, but to charge a capital crime in Puerto Rico, which hasn't had an execution since 1927 and whose residents essentially have no say in our government (they don't participate in our presidential elections and have only one nonvoting representative in Congress) is a true abuse of power.

Under the Clinton administration, local opposition to the death penalty was taken into account. Then, capital charges would be filed only when the federal interest was overriding. But those guidelines were revised under Ashcroft in 2001, and local deference was eliminated.

The capital murder trial in Puerto Rico ended recently with the men's acquittal. Whether the death penalty controversy had anything to do with the men walking free is unclear, but it gives Ashcroft something to think about.

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