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March 25, 2005
Copyright © 2005 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

The Death Penalty: What Is Your Opinion Of It?

On Tuesday, the island once again faced the impending possibility that two convicted Puerto Ricans might be sentenced to death for a crime committed in Puerto Rico. In a federal trial, a jury of 12 Boricuas – equally divided between men and women -- decided that Hernando Medina Villegas and Lorenzo Catalan Roman were guilty of murdering an armored truck guard in a robbery attempt three years ago.

The convicted pair now faces an April 11th judicial phase before the same jury to determine if they will receive the death penalty, a punishment prohibited by the local Constitution but allowed under federal laws with jurisdiction on the island. Had the two been tried in a Puerto Rican court, no death penalty could have been exacted. Capital punishment is not permitted under the island’s 1952 Constitution. The last person executed in Puerto Rico was in 1927 when the island was governed by a Presidentially-appointed Governor.

The death penalty controversy has gripped Puerto Rico since the 2002 trial of drug dealers Hector Oscar Acosta Martinez and Joel Rivera Alejandro who were indicted in federal court for the murder and dismemberment of a suspected collaborator. The federal government sought the death penalty in the case. Immediately, a series of court battles began to decide if local law precluded application of capital punishment.

The issue turned on Puerto Rico’s territorial status. Lawyers for the accused argued that federal prosecutors could not seek the death penalty, since the alleged crime took place on the island and the Puerto Rican Constitution prohibited capital punishment. A 1994 federal death penalty statute, they argued, did not apply to Puerto Rico.

Federal District Judge Salvador Casellas supported that position, ruling that the US Congress could not impose capital punishment in Puerto Rico because islanders had no representation in the Congress that passed the law. "It shocks the conscience to impose the ultimate penalty, death, upon American citizens who are denied the right to participate directly or indirectly in the government that enacts and authorizes the imposition of such punishment," he wrote.

Acting U.S. Attorney at the time, Guillermo Gil, immediately asked the U.S. Department of Justice to appeal the ruling, holding that Puerto Rico should not be accorded different treatment than any of the fifty states and that, if the Casellas ruling were allowed to stand, it would affect federal criminal prosecutions on the island. In effect, he argued, the ruling posited that Puerto Rico could veto a national law, something that no state had the power to do.

Subsequently, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston revoked Casellas’ decision, determining that the death penalty did apply to Puerto Rico because a territory of the United States was subject to federal statutes. Lawyers for the defendants appealed this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, who dismissed it, saying that it would not make a decision until there was actually a death sentence imposed by a federal court in Puerto Rico.

In a stunning conclusion to the Acosta/Rivera trial, both were acquitted of the kidnapping and homicide charges, although the strength of evidence presented against them 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.

In the current Medina/Catalan case, the jury did convict. Should it now opt to send the convicted murderers to death in a mainland penitentiary, an appeal to the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to follow. Anticipating the real possibility of the first death sentence on the island in modern times, the Puerto Rico Bar Association and the local chapter of Amnesty International are planning protest demonstrations, should it occur.

Opposition to capital punishment has been growing nationally in recent years. Surveys of prisoners awaiting execution consistently find that, in the main, they are poor and/or members of ethnic minorities, raising the constitutional issues of due process and equal protection under the law. Also, DNA analysis of evidence from old crime scenes has vindicated a number of condemned persons, raising the specter of the possible innocence of those who have already been put to death.

Even sitting federal judges have questioned the government’s application of capital punishment. In 2003, a federal judge, Mark L. Wolf, wrote, "In the past decade substantial evidence has emerged to demonstrate that innocent individuals are sentenced to death, and undoubtedly executed, much more often that previously understood."

Just this week, the Catholic Bishops of the United States announced that they are launching a national campaign to bring an end to capital punishment. The effort will be headed up by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the Archbishop of Washington. According to a story in the Washington Post, the campaign will use all the tools of persuasion at the church's disposal. McCarrick told the Post that "I think the DNA evidence has really shaken up people. I think this is a moment, a very special moment, where we can talk about this and people are ready to listen."

A national poll of Roman Catholic adults conducted by Zogby International found that Catholic support for capital punishment has declined dramatically in recent years. The poll revealed that only 48% of American Catholics now support the death penalty. Comparable polls by other organizations had registered a 68% support among Catholics in 2001.

On the other side of the question is the current Bush administration, militating for more death penalty findings in capital cases. Since 2000, the U.S. Justice Department, then headed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, aggressively sought death penalty sentences, although many juries declined to impose it. It is unlikely that current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will veer from that course, especially since he was known as an unshakable advocate for the punishment when he was legal counsel for the then Governor of Texas, George W. Bush.

Traditionally, death penalty advocacy or opposition has broken along liberal/conservative lines, but there are now fissures running through both positions as groups weigh their stand on capital punishment against other competing values. For instance, in a 2003 Herald poll, six of ten respondents approved of the federal government applying the death penalty option to sentences in capital cases in Puerto Rico, however most polling on the island shows a majority of Puerto Ricans morally opposed to capital punishment.

The referenced Herald poll result could be seen as giving priority to an aspiration for the island to be equal to the states in the application of federal policies, regardless of the respondent’s personal belief in the morality of capital punishment.

No matter what way the Medina/Catalan jury comes down on final punishment, Puerto Ricans will again be torn on both the morality of the death penalty and the acceptability of the federal government’s imposition of it on an island whose local constitution rejects it.

How do you come down on the death penalty?

Please vote above!

This Week's Question:

How do you come down on the death penalty?

US . Residents
. PR
I agree with the death penalty

35% I oppose the death penalty

7% I’m not sure



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