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U.S. Prosecutors Seek Death Penalty in Puerto Rico

January 25, 2005
Copyright © 2005
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Jury selection began in the trial of two men accused of killing a security guard in an armed robbery -- a crime that could bring the death penalty even though the U.S. territory outlawed the punishment after its last execution 78 years ago.

Lorenzo Catalan Roman and Hernando Medina Villegas are accused of murder in the fatal shooting March 27, 2002, of Gilberto Rodriguez Cabrera, 31, who was delivering money from an armored truck to a bank when gunmen opened fire and killed him.

Three alleged accomplices -- Quester Sterling Suarez, David Morales Machuca and Pablo Sanchez Rodriguez -- will also be tried on charges of armed robbery and conspiring to interfere with interstate commerce but do not face the death penalty.

A pool of 250 potential jurors began filling out questionnaires Monday. Among the questions was whether the potential jurors believe in the death penalty and whether they believe Puerto Rico should become a U.S. state, U.S. District Attorney Humbert Garcia said.

The Puerto Rico Supreme Court ruled in 2000 the death penalty violated the U.S. territory's constitution but a year later, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned the ruling, saying the island is subject to federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision.

Congress restored it for certain crimes in 1988.

The death penalty has been invoked in more than 60 cases in Puerto Rico since Congress restored it for certain crimes in 1988, and the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act was passed.

Still, the U.S. Attorney-General has only authorized federal prosecutors to seek it twice in Puerto Rico since.

In the last death penalty trial last year -- the first in more than 75 years -- a jury moved to acquit Joel Rivera Alejandro, 25, and Hector Acosta Martinez, 32, who were accused of kidnapping and killing a grocer in 1998. They were transferred from federal custody to another prison, where they are serving long terms for previous convictions.

``If the death penalty hadn't been at issue, the jury might have rendered a different verdict,'' said lawyer Jorge Luis Armenteros, 33, member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Puerto Rico has not held an execution since 1927, when farmworker Pascual Ramos was hanged for beheading his boss with a machete.

The island outlawed the punishment in 1929, and is now among 12 U.S. states and the District of Columbia that do not allow the death penalty.

If Catalan Roman and Medina Villegas are convicted and sentenced to death, they will not be executed on the island.

U.S. District Court Judge Juan Perez Gimenez will hear the case. The jurors' questionnaires are due Wednesday, and the defense and prosecution will meet Feb. 9 to evaluate the answers.

``Puerto Ricans massively reject the death penalty,'' said Julio Fontanet, president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, who added the jury would likely render the same decision.

Moreover, many Puerto Ricans say it infringes on Puerto Rico's right to self-government. The island's 4 million people are U.S. citizens but have no vote in Congress.

But public opinion may be changing as the U.S. territory sees a jump in crime.

The homicide rate has risen, and Puerto Ricans have been clamoring for stricter law enforcement and more severe penalties. There were 793 homicides -- mostly drug-related -- in 2004, surpassing 780 in 2003. It was the highest rate in eight years.

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