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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Death-Penalty Foes Multiply As Murder Trial Nears
March 26, 2000
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- The alleged drug dealers supposedly shot one of their partners in crime because they thought he had stolen 65 kilos of their cocaine. They are accused of using a machete to slice off an accomplice's head for telling police about the killing to save his own skin.
The violent cocktail of a gun, drugs and a machete made the federal government seek the death penalty for four defendants in this bloody 1996 conspiracy. When their trial opens -- perhaps this fall -- they will be among the first to face capital punishment in Puerto Rico in 73 years. The federal government's push for the death penalty is drawing opposition immersed in religious overtones and political resentment.
"I won't accept that an execution be done here," said radio talk-show host Millie Gil, whose husband was shot to death 12 years ago. Speaking to 150 people last week at a candlelight vigil against the death penalty, she added, "We say no to institutional murder. No more violence."
Traditional moral arguments aside, these federal capital-punishment cases in Puerto Rico are worrying people here for other reasons:
Puerto Rico last hanged a man in 1927, banned capital punishment two years later, and expressly prohibits the death penalty in the Commonwealth's Constitution voters approved in 1952.
Some isolated voices to the contrary, virtually no politician or public figure here speaks up for the death penalty.
The 3.8 million people in this U.S. territory have no voting representation in the Congress that passed the laws reinstating the federal death penalty for drug kingpins in 1984 and broadening its reach to 60 crimes in 1992.
So for activists, ministers, legal scholars and politicians alike, it's troubling -- for some, downright galling -- that Puerto Rico's eight defendants facing death in pending federal cases is the highest number anywhere in the United States. California and Texas follow with five and four, respectively.
In all, 13 defendants in Puerto Rico have been authorized for death-penalty prosecution since that punishment was reinstated. In addition to the eight pending cases, five others have ended with pleas or dismissals. This means the island has among the highest per capita federal death-penalty defendants of any state or territory, surpassed only by Washington, D.C., Virginia, and New Mexico.
"We voted against it, and here comes the imperial power to tell us that they don't accept the society that we want," labor activist Luis Pedraza Leduc told the people holding candles at the vigil in front of the Federal Building in San Juan.
"That's why we have to oppose this and not swallow the lie that this is an answer to the rise in crime," Pedraza said. "The death penalty is just another failure by the state. I represent workers and have never seen a rich man get the death penalty."
Similar arguments come from activists fighting a federal death-penalty trial that starts in May in Washington, D.C., against Carl Derek Cooper, accused of killing three people at a Starbucks coffeehouse during a robbery in 1997. They point to a 1992 referendum in which voters there rejected capital punishment by a 2-1 ratio. Like Puerto Rico, Washington, D.C., does not have voting representatives in Congress.
Only 21 of the more than 3,600 on death row are from federal cases. The first federal execution since 1963 -- that of marijuana dealer Juan Raul Garza of Brownsville, Texas -- is set for this summer, while states have executed more than 600 people, 80 percent of them in 12 Southern states opponents call the "Death Belt." Texas leads the pack with 211 executions, followed by Florida with 46.
But the relatively small numbers -- 196 defendants since 1984 -- don't mean much to those who resent federal efforts to put people to death.
"This guy [Cooper] is not an angel, but the situation created by his case is what mobilizes the people here," said Kevin Neale of the Dave Clarke Coalition heading the opposition in Washington, D.C. "There have been other situations where the federal government has imposed its will on the city. This one is even more blatant."
In Puerto Rico's case, the slippery judicial definitions of its unique Commonwealth status -- where the degree of autonomy and equal treatment are always questioned -- make the line even more blurry.
"If they can treat us differently to give us less money for federal aid programs, then they shouldn't treat us like a state when it comes to not recognizing our repudiation of the death penalty," lawyer Wilma Reveron Collazosaid.
Local U.S. attorneys and Justice Department spokesman John Russell would not comment on the number of federal death-penalty cases in Puerto Rico nor the fairness of applying the death penalty in a place with no voting representation in Congress.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who is personally against capital punishment, according to a spokesperson in her office, authorizes fewer than half of the death-penalty prosecution requests that reach her desk. She requested a study on whether racial disparities exist in the federal death-penalty system. Seventy-six percent of all federal death-penalty defendants since 1984 are nonwhite.
However, Russell said that in the federal system, the nature of the crime, not race, is the determining factor.
"We have a death-penalty protocol that's fairly strenuous, and that doesn't take into account any racial background," Russell said.
Experts say the numbers in Puerto Rico could reflect local peculiarities. Unlike most other places, Puerto Rico's federal courts district is burdened with many multidefendant cases and drug cases, reflecting the island's use as a springboard in the Caribbean for the international drug trade.
Victor Manuel Valle Lassalle is accused of being the mastermind in the 1996 drug trafficking and murder conspiracy that ended with the dead informant. Jose Rodriguez Marrero and Nicholas Pena Gonzalez also face the death penalty. The fourth defendant, Heriberto Nieves Alonzo, pleaded guilty to avoid an execution. The case, which was scheduled to start last week, was held pending an appeal on Pena Gonzalez's mental competency.
For death-penalty opponents here, what the men did is beside the point. Capital punishment is not a deterrent; it's against their beliefs, and it doesn't address the deeper social causes of crime, they say. Others think it is discriminatory or that the justice system will send innocent people to their deaths. Eighty-six people have been released from death row across the country since 1973.
"The death penalty is not going to bring him back," said Carmela Rivera, 45, a school principal whose nephew was killed in an unsolved 1998 carjacking. "The state shouldn't sponsor the crime we abhor. Violence engenders violence."
Although a majority of Americans, 66 percent, still favored the death penalty in a recent Gallup poll, that support is the lowest it has been in 20 years.
But that decline in support depends on how you ask the question, according to Kent Scheidegger, legal director for the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, which defends victims' rights in cases across the country. Other studies show that racial makeup of those facing the death penalty reflects the demographics of people who commit capital crimes. He called the chances of executing an innocent person remote.
"I don't believe that outweighs the deterrent value of the death penalty," Scheidegger said. "It's a basic principle of human behavior that incentives matter."
Armed with statistics, constitutional considerations, newspaper editorials and passion, anti-death-penalty activists here hope to imitate their brethren in the mainland United States.
The moment is prime, they say, to capitalize on the support of the 140 organizations nationwide that so far have gotten at least 13 states to consider moratoriums or study whether they have problems in their capital-punishment systems. News conferences, events and forums across the island are aimed at the general public and local politicians.
"No matter how many vigils we'll have to do, we'll do them," said Carmelo Campos, who serves as coordinator of the Citizens Against the Death Penalty committee.