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Is Death Penalty A Solution?


December 30, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

The last column I wrote was about the terrible tragedy suffered by my nephew’s immediate family and to a lesser degree by all of our extended family and close friends. As you may be aware, or remember reading, hearing about it on the radio, or seeing it on television, my nephew Antonio "Toñito" Barcelo Jimenez and two of his daughters, Yahaira and Laura, were massacred on PR2 near Caparra by some assassins who were shooting at another car, while my nephew’s car was in between them.

Yes, assassins shooting to kill on a public highway, without any regard for the life of innocent passersby. It reminded me of the lawless gangs in cowboy movies who ride into town shooting in the air and at any one who dares try to stop them. Why? Because they own the town. Either they own the sheriff or local marshal, or the sheriff or marshal is afraid of them.

What’s happening in Puerto Rico; do criminals and assassins own the law enforcement officers, or are the law enforcement officers afraid to intervene? If they are afraid to intervene, one must ask them why are they afraid to intervene? Are they physically afraid for themselves or for their families? Or are they afraid of losing their jobs, or being deprived of opportunities to be promoted because their supervisors, or influential office holders, or politicians protect the assassins?

When local law enforcement officers are asked what can be done about the random killing, the highway executions, the open sale of illegal drugs, they merely shrug their shoulders, or give details about allegedly new law enforcement tactics, which you know have been tried before and have failed. They give new fancy names to programs to uncover and prosecute criminals, but violent crimes keep increasing. However, one must acknowledge that it is not only at the investigative level that plans fail to fulfill all expectations; things get worst at the prosecution level.

In many criminal cases, particularly in those where the accused criminal is very wealthy and has the financial and human resources to bribe and threaten, the trial is postponed over and over again, almost at will, by the defense attorney, who, by the way, is usually much more experienced, better prepared, and a much better trial lawyer than most of the prosecuting attorneys he or she confronts.

By threatening or bribing three or more jurors or, in some cases, even the judge, wealthier criminals, particularly drug lords, are able to get away without being found guilty of crimes, which everyone involved knows they committed.

We see this happening so often that the people’s trust in our legal system has been severely undermined. The vast majority of the people in Puerto Rico don’t have any faith in our law enforcement organizations, in our Department of Justice, or in our judicial system. The worst part about this is that our criminals, assassins, and drug lords know this, and take full advantage of it.

In Puerto Rico, the criminals, assassins, and drug lords are in constant war against our children, our families, and our community. They have declared war on us, but we still are trying to appease them. Many people still earnestly believe all criminals can be re-educated, but every day, more and more innocent victims are viciously killed by them. Whose civil rights, and right to live and pursue their happiness, and their families’ happiness are we going to protect? The assassins or the innocent victims? How can we reconcile our legal system and our desire to reform and re-educate criminals with the government’s duty to protect the lives and freedom of all its citizens, particularly the lives and freedom of our good law-abiding citizens? Certainly, our existing strategy isn’t working and unless the government can fulfill its most important responsibility, which is to protect the lives and liberty of its citizens and guarantee them a community where law and order prevails, then that government loses its claim to hold office. Why should we constitute and support a government if it can’t maintain law and order? In such a situation, the individuals would then have to protect themselves by arming themselves. And then, the law of the jungle would prevail.

Extreme dangerous circumstances require extreme solutions. We must then ask ourselves what can we do to protect innocent victims from being assassinated at will? How can we guarantee our law-abiding citizens their lives and their freedom to circulate on our roads, towns, and cities without fear of being killed? How can parents go to bed at night without fear of having their children raped or killed on their way home? How can our teenagers and our young men and women go to parties and gatherings at night without fear of being held up, raped, or killed?

Well, the best answer to these questions that I have found, is what happened in Puerto Rico with carjackings.

As you may remember, in the 1980s a wave of carjackings in the 50 states of the union and Puerto Rico, was shocking the nation. Criminals were stealing cars at gunpoint and killing the owner or whomever was driving the car. In Puerto Rico, the police and the law enforcement authorities were helpless, and the number of carjacking victims was growing every day. Concern and dismay was widespread. People were being held up and killed for their car upon arriving at their homes at night. Families of the victims were demanding action.

Finally, the U.S. Congress decided to take action and, in 1992, passed the federal carjacking statute, which not only allowed prosecution of carjacking as a federal offense, but imposed the death penalty if death resulted during a carjacking. Once the federal law was passed and criminals became aware they were subject to federal prosecution if they committed carjacking and they were subject to the death penalty if the victim was killed, carjackings have stopped almost completely and, in the few that have occurred, no one has been murdered.

Before this happened, I always opposed the death penalty. It was my firm belief that the threat of the death penalty wasn’t a deterrent. I further believed we, as a society, didn’t have the authority to take away the life of another human being. However, the incredibly positive results of the federal carjacking statute in substantially reducing the killing of innocent victims as a result of carjackings, clearly has proved to me that the threat of the death penalty is a deterrent.

The death of my nephew, Antonio Barcelo Jimenez and his two daughters Yahaira and Laura, probably would have been prevented if shooting from one car to another, which results in the death of an innocent bystander or passenger in another car, had been punishable by death in federal court.

Antonio "Toñito" Barcelo Jimenez’s family, myself included, don’t want to see any other family in Puerto Rico become victims of a similar massacre. We want to be able to prevent this tragedy from occurring to others. We want to see the public roads returned to the people.

Toñito’s brother, Gustavo, has suggested we try to convince Congress to legislate, as it did with carjacking, to make it punishable by death when anyone kills an innocent bystander or passenger in another car while shooting from a motor vehicle on a public road, be it a federal, state, county, or municipal road. I fully agree with his suggestion and I have promised to try to help him make this suggestion a reality.

As much as I would hate to see anyone executed, if that is an effective way to prevent other innocent victims from being killed to prevent another senseless massacre as occurred to my family on Dec. 11, then it will be well worth it.

Early next year, I will be going to Washington, D.C. to meet with some members of the House of Representatives and the Senate to see if we can interest Congress in passing a law similar to the federal carjacking statute. If we are successful and manage to put an end to these highway massacres and return the public roads to the people, then Toñito, Yahaira, and Laura will at least not have died in vain.

Carlos Romero Barcelo is a two-term former governor of Puerto Rico (1977-84), a two-term former resident commissioner (1993-2000), and a two-term former mayor of San Juan (1969-78). He was president of the New Progressive Party for 11 years.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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