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EFE News Service
Though Puerto Rico Bans Capital Punishment, Some Still Exposed
By Yaisha Vargas
11 April 2005
San Juan, Apr 11 (EFE).- The sometimes-academic debate over implications of Puerto Rico's special relationship with the United States has life-or-death significance for 11 citizens of the commonwealth facing the possibility of capital punishment despite prohibition of that sentence by the island's constitution.
Two of them enter the sentencing phase Monday of a federal trial in which the jury will have to decide between life in prison or the death penalty.
Authorities in Pennsylvania have also requested the extradition of three other Puerto Ricans accused of committing killings in the state. If convicted, the men could face the death penalty.
A heated debate is taking place in Puerto Rico between supporters and opponents of capital punishment, with the long-running argument over the island's political status and independence with regard to U.S. federal laws as a backdrop.
Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States and subject to federal laws, though they do not vote in presidential elections and they do not pay federal income tax.
In 1929, the Puerto Rican legislature ended capital punishment, which was banned outright in the 1952 constitution, a document endorsed by the U.S. Congress.
Although several U.S. states also ban capital punishment, a bill signed into law in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton expanded the federal death penalty to cover some 60 offenses and included a provision allowing defendants accused of certain crimes to be tried under federal jurisdiction and sentenced to death.
On March 22, a federal jury here found Hernando Medina Villegas and Lorenzo Catalan Roman guilty of murdering Gilberto Rodriguez Cabrera, an armored truck security guard, three years ago.
Since the men were charged with murder, armed robbery and conspiring to interfere with interstate commerce, the Department of Justice certified the case for the death penalty.
During the sentencing phase of the trial, the jury will have to decide whether Medina Villegas and Catalan Roman should get life in prison or the death penalty.
On March 29, Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila said he would write to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales requesting that the death penalty not be sought in the case, but the letter was apparently never sent.
More than 30 civil rights groups, as well as religious, academic and political organizations, created a coalition last month to fight the death penalty.
Acevedo Vila and his justice secretary, Roberto Sanchez Ramos, have indicated that although they personally oppose the death penalty, federal law permits its use.
Federal prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty for Eddie Samir Rodriguez, Mario Hernandez, Jose Roman Martinez, Mariela Gonzalez Marrero, Rafael Quiles Arce and Jessica Torres Rosario.
Rodriguez, Hernandez and Roman Martinez were charged in February 2004 with criminal conspiracy and theft of an automobile by force that resulted in the killing of Yesenia Ortiz in April 1999.
Gonzalez Marrero, Quiles Arce and Torres Rosario, meanwhile, stand accused of a June 2004 carjacking in which Luis Vargas Maldonado died.
Under the Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, murder during a carjacking is punishable by death.
Groups opposed to the death penalty contend that the Puerto Rican Constitution is the highest law in the island and federal authorities should respect it.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898. The island gained the right to self-government in 1952, subordinated to the U.S. Constitution.
Pennsylvania authorities have requested the extradition from Puerto Rico of Juan Martinez, Thomas Rivera and Rolando Caquias, who are accused of murder.
Luis Russi, an attorney representing the three men, told EFE that they should not be sent to Pennsylvania because they would be subject to possible imposition of a death sentence.
Justice Secretariat Extradition Division chief Rosa Alexandrino said the U.S. Constitution and a federal extradition law obligated the Puerto Rican government to extradite suspects sought by U.S. authorities.
The controversy is in the hands of the Puerto Rican courts, which will have to decide for the first time whether the island's constitution or federal statutes have more force in extradition cases.