On Saturday, a lone juror in a criminal case before the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico was all that stood between the Alexis Candelario Santana and the death penalty. The Federal Prosecutors wanted to get a death penalty conviction for a man responsible for more murders than Jeffrey Dahmer had victims and the mastermind behind the “Tombola massacre” that shocked Puerto Rico in 2009. The lone juror, a woman according to El Nuevo Día, was the reason Candelario will now face life in prison, instead of the death penalty. Governor Garcia Padilla lauded the decision by the jury, stating:
“I express my most profound respect to the jury for the decision it has taken. With it they have sustained the conviction of the Puerto Rican people that capital punishment should not be applied under any circumstances…”
While Pedro Pierluisi, president of the Statehood Party and representative before Congress for Puerto Rico, coincided with the Governor and added that the verdict is proof that Puerto Ricans will not impose the death penalty under any circumstance. That said, the verdict brings several issues to light in Puerto Rico.
The first issue one must address in the death penalty debate in Puerto Rico is the federal/state divide. Namely, Puerto Rico’s Constitution prohibits the death penalty, while the federal Constitution allows it. Until the 1990s, federal prosecutors did not seek the death penalty in Puerto Rico. However, following a court decision in 2001 where the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that the legal framework concerning Puerto Rico’s relationship with the U.S. did not bar the death penalty in federal cases, prosecutors have been more aggressive in seeking the death penalty here on the Island (this being the 5th time it has been placed before a local jury). Some, including the State Bar Association, view the local constitution as a clear impediment to the Federal Government’s quest to impose the death penalty, ignoring the fact that the federal constitution has no duty to pay heed to the local constitution. Opponents of the death penalty argue that Puerto Ricans by and large reject it, and that it has no place in our culture even though the last two cases were decided by a single juror (instead of an overwhelming rejection by said jury).
Another point to consider is the contradiction between the message made by opponents of the death penalty and the facts on the ground. Following the verdict, opponents cheered the decision and lauded Puerto Rico’s commitment to civil values, respect for life and “civilization.” However, this “respect to civil values” goes ignored in the spiraling crime rate faced by the island, with over 1,000 murders per year for the past 2 years, without counting the intolerable levels of gun and gang violence, rape and home invasions. To those who lauded Puerto Rican’s value based on a jury verdict, the message seems to be lost on the victims of everyday crime. Puerto Rico has, contrary to what Pierluisi claims, a culture that is highly tolerable of death when one sees the crime wave hitting the Island, not only in the past few years, but in the past decades. Additionally, the last two cases have rejected the death penalty not because a majority of jurors rejected it, but because one single juror did not agree. This means that out of 12 jurors, 11 were ready to pull the “switch” on the accused, hardly a strong showing of a culture that rejects the death penalty.
The issue will no doubt come again as the local federal court has another case in which the death penalty is being sought in the next month. Puerto Rico will have another chance to either hold the line on its opposition to the death penalty, or break with its history and embrace stronger tactics in the fight against crime.