We don’t want the death penalty
By: Roberto Barreto
The Bush administration thought that it would bring the death penalty back to Puerto Rico against the will of its people by demanding a death sentence in a murder trial against two men held this summer. But in a stunning turn of events, the jury in the trial delivered a not-guilty verdict, frustrating the federal prosecutors’ plans. The trial of Joel Rivera Alejandro and Héctor Acosta Martínez–who were accused of kidnapping and murdering a store owner — began in July, with federal prosecutors demanding a death sentence.
This was an outrageous act of colonial arrogance. Puerto Ricans abolished the death penalty in 1929. In 1952, a new Constitution for the U.S. territory included an explicit prohibition of the death penalty: “Section 7. The right to life, liberty and the enjoyment of property is recognized as a fundamental right of man. The death penalty shall not exist.”
But when former President Bill Clinton signed the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994, he extended the federal death penalty to Puerto Rico in total disregard for its constitution. The federal government insists that Puerto Rico’s constitution should be considered equal to the constitution of any state in the union — and therefore, federal jurisdiction would override state jurisdiction.
The problem is that Puerto Ricans have no presidential vote nor representation in Congress. Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. In 1952, when the so-called Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was founded, the U.S. Congress established that federal laws would apply to Puerto Rico unless they were “locally inapplicable.” That year, the people of Puerto Rico voted in a plebiscite to approve a constitution that they were led to believe banned the death penalty permanently. The trial in San Juan this summer demonstrates that the U.S. government has a different interpretation.
In 2000, Salvador Casellas, a federal judge, ruled that the federal death penalty could not be used in Puerto Rico. He wrote: “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.” But in 2001, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed this decision, opening the way for the death penalty trial of Alejandro and Martínez.
As the trial was to get underway, a series of protests were called by groups including Ciudadanos Contra la Pena de Muerte (CCPM), Organización Socialista Internacional (OSI), Frente Socialista and the Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico’s bar association). In fact, the court found that the population is so strongly against the death penalty that it had to delay the start of the trial — because it couldn’t find enough people willing to be jurors!
As is so common in high-profile cases, the authorities coerced and intimidated witnesses in the case. One key witness, Carmen Monserrate, testified in court that her previous testimony in 1998 in front of a grand jury took place under the threat that her children would be taken away from her. Another witness, Ana Arroyo Torres, testified that she was threatened by federal agents. “They told me that if I refuse to come, they would arrest me, and I wondered why?”
Before they started deliberating, Judge Héctor Laffitte instructed the jury to consider only the question of whether the accused were guilty or not guilty — and leave considerations regarding the type of punishment for a latter stage of the trial. But the jury returned to court repeatedly to ask the judge details about the death penalty statutes — and about the definition of “interstate commerce,” which was a key concept used by prosecutors to claim that this was a federal case — and therefore eligible for a death sentence. In each occasion, the judge denied the jury’s request to see the laws on capital punishment.
Ultimately, the jury decided to acquit the two defendants. For the time being, the federal government’s intention to impose the death penalty on Puerto Rico has been defeated. For the overwhelming majority of Puerto Ricans who oppose the death penalty, this verdict is a relief. But U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has already certified more prosecutions for the death penalty, so the struggle against federal executions in Puerto Rico must continue.
Abolitionists everywhere should include colonialism — together with racism, class discrimination and corruption — to the long list of reasons why the death penalty should be abolished.