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Federal Judge Rejects US Death Penalty Law In Puerto Rico

Prosecutors To Appeal Ruling

Federal Judge Rejects US Death Penalty Law In Puerto Rico

July 18, 2000
Copyright © 2000 AGENCY PRESS WIRES. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A federal judge here used Puerto Rico 's unique political relationship with the United States to reject a federal law that would have allowed two men to face the death penalty when they go to trial.

District Court Judge Salvador Casellas ruled that the US Congress could not impose a 1994 death penalty statute for certain crimes in Puerto Rico because islanders had no voice in drafting the law.

In his ruling Monday, Casellas said prosecutors may not seek the death penalty in their case against two accused murderers. His ruling provides ammunition to anti-death-penalty advocates, but it is not the final word on its status in Puerto Rico.

It is the first time a U.S. district judge has used Puerto Rico`s political status to reject the federal government`s push for capital punishment on the island, where the constitution prohibits it and where one has been executed in 73 years. Many observers expect the issue ultimately will be decided by the Supreme Court.

Casellas said the island`s unique Commonwealth status made the federal death-penalty law "locally inapplicable." He also criticized federal authorities for unilaterally applying federal laws to the Puerto Rican people.

"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," the judge wrote.

Casellas' ruling came after lawyers for Hector Oscar Acosta Martinez and Joel Rivera Alejandro -- accused of kidnapping and killing a local businessman -- argued that the Puerto Rican constitution prohibits the death penalty .

The two could face up to life in prison if they are convicted.

Federal prosecutors, noting that other judges in the same district hold different views, vow to keep fighting. U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil said his office will ask the solicitor general to appeal.

"He`s talking about making a distinction between Puerto Rico and the states in terms of how laws are applied, and we can`t let that happen here because that affects our system of justice," Gil said.

Gretchen Michael, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department, said that for now, authorities will continue reviewing potential capital cases. "We`re still reading this decision, so we can`t comment on what its particular effect will be," Michael said.

Puerto Rico banned capital punishment two years after hanging a man in 1927. Virtually no politician or public figure here speaks for the death penalty.

The 3.8 million people in this U.S. territory have no voting representation in Congress, which passed the laws reinstating the federal death penalty for drug kingpins in 1984 and broadened its reach to 60 crimes in 1992.

Casellas specifically referred to these two points when ruling that the defendants cannot face death. Unless prosecutors prevail on appeal, the case now becomes another of the district`s many regular felony cases.

In addition to the issue of lack of representation, Casellas wrote that the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act was "not specifically made extensive to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico" and, in any case, if that were Congress` intent, it violated the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950.

Legal observers believe that Casellas' ruling paves the way for the US Supreme Court to decide whether capital punishment should be applicable in Puerto Rico .

Puerto Rico is considered a Commonwealth of the United States. It became a US posession following the Spanish-American war of 1898.

Wednesday, July 19th, 2000.  

Federal Prosecutors To Appeal Ruling On Death Penalty

July 18, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN (AP) - Acting U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil said he will ask the U.S. Department of Justice to appeal the ruling by a federal judge that halts application of the death penalty to federal criminal cases in Puerto Rico.

Gil said he recommended to the U.S. Attorney General that the decision by U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Casellas be appealed because they believe it would affect federal criminal prosecutions on the island, according to published reports.

"Our recommendation is that it should be appealed because we're talking about setting Puerto Rico apart from all other states, and we can't allow that to happen here because it's going to affect the applicability of the federal justice system," Gil said.

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