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The Hartford Courant
Puerto Rico, U.S. Fight Over Capital Punishment
Federal Prosecutors Seek Executions, Despite Territory's Ban
BY Matthew Hay Brown, Staff Writer
11 April 2005
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The possible execution of two men convicted of murdering a security guard is arousing broad opposition in this U.S. territory, where some are calling it only the latest intrusion by the federal government into local affairs.
Puerto Rico abolished capital punishment in 1929, but Washington has reserved the right to execute suspects convicted of federal crimes.
Now Lorenzo Catalan Roman and Hernando Medina Villegas, convicted by a federal jury last month in the 2002 shooting death of Gilberto Rodriguez Cabrera during an armored-car robbery in the central town of Gurabo, could become the first islanders to be put to death in nearly 80 years.
The sentencing phase of the trial begins Monday before Judge Juan Perez Gimenez at U.S. District Court in San Juan.
"This is what it means to live in a colony," said island Sen. Maria de Lourdes Santiago, a member of the Puerto Rico Independence Party. "A court from another country, at the request of prosecutors who respond to the government of that country, can punish with death a Puerto Rican for a crime committed on Puerto Rican soil, without it mattering that our constitution prohibits it."
LAWMAKERS REGISTER VIEWS
It isn't only the minority independentistas who object. The island House and Senate, both controlled by the statehood-seeking New Progressive Party, have approved resolutions registering their opposition. The New Progressive Party Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuno, the island's nonvoting delegate to Congress, was sounding out colleagues on the possibility of exempting Puerto Rico from capital punishment. And Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila, the leader of the commonwealth-supporting Popular Democratic Party, has asked U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales not to seek the death penalty here.
"When the Department of Justice has to make the decision of whether to request of a jury to consider the death penalty, one of the elements they must take into consideration is the community," said Acevedo Vila, an attorney by profession. "This is so deep in terms of the values of the Puerto Rican community that it's in our constitution."
HIGH HOMICIDE RATE
On an island where the homicide rate is three times the national average, not everyone opposes capital punishment. Some here say the possibility of execution could deter would-be criminals.
"Our values are going down the drain," said Miguel Martinez, a 60-year-old security guard in San Juan. "The death penalty may be the only way to revive respect for them."
But if callers to radio programs and statements by politicians are any indication, opposition to capital punishment here appears overwhelming and broad-based. The cause appears to have united Puerto Ricans across ideological lines like none since the campaign against the Navy's practice bombing of Vieques.
"Puerto Ricans massively reject the death penalty," said Julio Fontanet, president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association.
The largest organization of island lawyers already has filed its objections with the federal government, the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Assistance Society and the Caribbean Justice and Peace Project also have weighed in against executing Catalan and Medina. Amnesty International organized a protest outside the federal courthouse here on Good Friday calling for "No more crucifixions."
Puerto Rico wrote the prohibition of capital punishment in its commonwealth constitution of 1952. In 2000, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court found that any application here of the death penalty is unconstitutional. But the next year, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturned that ruling, saying the island is subject to federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision.
Catalan and Villegas were accused in three armed robberies of Ranger American Armored Services in 2001 and 2002. Rodriguez was shot during the third robbery, outside the Saulo Rodriguez Credit Union in Gurabo in March 2002. Another guard was wounded in that incident.
During the trial at U.S. District Court in San Juan, the defense argued that the case should have been tried in local courts. But federal prosecutors said they had jurisdiction because the shooting interfered with interstate commerce.
Defense attorney Juan Alvarez said the shooting, which was captured on videotape and lasted 31 seconds, was not premeditated.
"They reacted; they didn't think," he said during closing arguments. A jury must find premeditation to impose the death penalty.
But prosecutor Lynn Doble called the evidence against the men "solid and decisive." She told jurors that Rodriguez's last words were, "No, no, please, no."
The same jury now will hear the penalty phase of the trial.
Prosecutors may present evidence of aggravating circumstances, such as information about the manner of the killing, any previous criminal record of the defendants and the impact of the killing on the victim's family. Any member of the victim's family may testify before the jury in what is called a victim-impact statement.
The defense may present mitigating evidence, such as the defendants' life experience, details of their roles in the killing, and any remorse they feel. After instructions by the judge and closing arguments by both sides, the jury will decide for each defendant between death or life without release from prison.
OTHERS MAY FACE EXECUTION
The case of Catalan and Villegas is the second here in which the U.S. attorney general has authorized federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Two men who faced the death penalty in a murder trial last year were acquitted.
Seven other suspects now awaiting federal trial here could face execution. The attorney general has authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Carlos Ayala Lopez, who is to be tried this year in the shooting death of a Department of Veterans Affairs officer in 2002.
The U.S. Department of Justice is studying possible death-penalty certification in the cases of two men and a woman accused in the carjacking and beating death last year of a man in the north-coast town of Dorado and three men accused in the disappearance of a local woman in 1999.
Puerto Rico's last execution was in 1927, when a farmworker was hanged for beheading his boss with a machete.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.