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2003-07-31

Ashcroft Seeks Death Penalty in Puerto Rico Murder Case Overriding Island’s Constitution and 74-Year Capital Punishment Ban

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The trial of two men accused of kidnapping and murder has reignited a political debate about Puerto Rico?s political status. Democracy Now! hosts a debate between University of Puerto Rico?s Rafael Bernabe and Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez.

Click here to read to full transcript

The trial of two men accused of kidnapping and murder in Puerto Rico has reignited a political debate about the island?s political status.

Following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court federal prosecutors, who answer to Attorney General John Ashcroft, are asking for the death penalty.

Puerto Rico banned the death penalty 74 years ago. The island?s current constitution, approved by Congress in 1952, even includes a clause that says, ?the death penalty shall not exist.?

Prosecutors are saying that federal criminal laws override local laws, whether they are statutes, state constitutions or the Puerto Rican Constitution. Legislation implemented in 1994 allows federal prosecutors to seek the death penalty for several crimes in states and territories that have banned it.

Puerto Rico?s 4 million people are U.S. citizens but have no vote in Congress. The Puerto Rico Bar Association has spoken out against the reimposition of the death penalty and opinion polls show that many residents oppose it as well.

The two men on trial are charged with the 1998 kidnapping and murder of a businessman.

  • Rafael Bernabe, professor at the University of Puerto Rico.
  • Jorge Martinez, public affairs specialist for the Justice Department.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we?re going to turn now to a very interesting case in Puerto Rico that is reigniting the debate on the death penalty that I think many Puerto Ricans thought was put to rest a long time ago, almost 74 years ago banned in Puerto Rico. Then incorporated that ban into the constitution. Now there is a murder case, the verdict is about to come down. Two men currently on trial, charged with the kidnapping and murder in 1998 of a businessman. The victim was allegedly killed when his captors learned the police had been told of their demand for a $1 million ransom. The federal government wants to impose the death penalty in this case.

Last night I spoke to Rafael Bernabe, who is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico and part of a group called ?Citizens Against the Death Penalty.? I also spoke with Jorge Martinez who is a spokesperson for the Justice Department, and began by asking Martinez to talk about the Bush administration’s attitude about the death penalty in Puerto Rico, though he did say that the Justice department could not speak specifically about any one case.

TAPE: JORGE MARTINEZ: Well, I mean it’s a little bit more than the position of the Bush administration regarding the death penalty. But the death penalty is the law of the land. Provided for as the ultimate punishment for heinous crimes, and the attorney general is committed to the fair implementation of justice. Now a process exists for seeking the death penalty and reviewing plea agreements in capital cases. That process is designed to assure consistency and fairness in the application of the death penalty in all U.S. districts across the country including Puerto Rico. The people involved in the death penalty review process here at the Justice Department have benefit of seeing the landscape of these cases nationwide, thereby ensuring consistency in U.S. attorney districts across the country. Now the Department of Justice is confident that this process works, and while I cannot and we cannot comment on the specifics of this individual case or the positions taken by those who advise the attorney general, we do believe that the process is designed to do exactly what the United States congress intended, and that was to guarantee the fair implementation of the death penalty.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bernabe, can you respond?

RAFAEL BERNABE: Well, I think the Puerto Rican people have expressed themselves consistently and very eloquently against the death penalty over many years. The death penalty was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1929 when Puerto Rico wrote the constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952, it included an article which explicitly excluded the death penalty and the people have Puerto Rico have insisted that they do not want the death penalty in the island. It is as you know a fact that there’s a worldwide movement against the death penalty. The United States is one of the countries that insists on carrying out this type of punishment. But Puerto Rico abolished it a long time ago, and it is very ironic and very sad that a country that has abolished this punishment many decades ago, is now being pulled back by the United States when in fact it should be the United States that should be imitating Puerto Rico in abolishing the death penalty. It is true that the federal government can impose the death penalty in Puerto Rico, but that is an indication of why the situation in Puerto Rico is still to a large extent a colonial situation, in which the United States can override these positions of the constitution of the Commonwealth and impose something that the Puerto Rican people do not want. So there are two issues here. The question of the death penalty and the question of the people of Puerto Rico in obtaining a situation in which they have true self-determination — in which their will is respected by the federal government which is certainly not the case now.

AMY GOODMAN: Justice Department spokesperson Jorge Martinez, the issue of the will of the Puerto Rican people being respected. JORGE MARTINEZ: Well, again I mean talking about the status of the island. That’s not an issue that would be handled by the Justice Department but I can say specifically about the death penalty issue, is that this case is a capital case, it is being tried in a federal court in the island, and as the professor knows, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. And the death penalty is the law of the land at the federal level. And if these defendants are convicted and subsequently sentenced to death in this particular case, those individuals would be transferred to Indiana to?for—obviously to carry out that sentencing.

RAFAEL BERNABE: The situation if I may comment on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Bernabe?

RAFAEL BERNABE: Yes. The situation here is that, in this case as my friend, my colleague has said several times, it is the law of the land. It is a law in which Puerto Ricans have not participated in the drafting of it. We do not have representatives in congress, this is a law in which?that we don’t agree with and that we don’t have representatives in the process of preparing this law, for example demanding that we be excluded from it. What we do have is a constitution that is supposed to be a compact between Puerto Rico and the United States. And it is a constitution that congress revised in 1952. In fact, there were several parts of the constitution that they objected to and they removed them. But they didn?t remove this one. They left this one. Because they evidently understood that the Puerto Rican people did not agree with the death penalty, and they could live with that. Now you have the federal government, the congress, approving legislation which permits the death penalty all over the territories and in the States and that means that the will of the Puerto Rican people does not matter. This compact is a one-way document in a sense in which the federal government can override it whenever it feels it can do so.

So again as I say, there are two questions here. We are in Puerto Rico struggling against the death penalty because we are against the death penalty anywhere. And we are also struggling for congress to respect what is the will of the majority of the Puerto Rican people—the bar association, labor unions, community organization, church organizations, student organizations, just about anybody who has said anything about this question, has expressed an opposition to the death penalty.

JORGE MARTINEZ: I think your issue then is a political issue and not one that is — that would be determined by the Justice Department. There is no place for politics in the Justice Department and we uphold the law of the land, and there are in these particular cases suggestions that are made and positions that are taken by those who advise the department. Now if you want to talk about the ineffectiveness of the representatives, the congressional commissioner of the governor of Puerto Rico of the Commonwealth party in addressing these issues in congress, this is not the appropriate venue.

RAFAEL BERNABE: I agree but? JORGE MARTINEZ: The fact of the matter is that again, the death penalty is the law of the land in this particular case, individuals advice on this matter—advised the attorney general and the US attorney?s office in Puerto Rico made the decision to try this as a capital case. Now because this case is tried in federal court, obviously it is appropriate. If these individuals are sentenced and convicted for an atrocious crime of murdering this innocent victim and dismembering his body, then they will suffer the consequences in the applicable locale here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Jorge Martinez, as a Puerto Rican yourself and a spokesperson of the Justice Department, what about this issue that Professor Bernabe raises, of while it is the law of the land, Puerto Ricans did not get to participate in the making of that law, whether or not they’re for or against it because they don’t have representation in congress.

JORGE MARTINEZ: Well, it doesn’t matter what my position is. We are here to uphold the law of the land and that’s what we do here. And politics has no business in this Justice Department.

RAFAEL BERNABE: Yeah well, from my perspective, I don’t want to reduce this to the issue of the status question. I think there are two questions here that is my whole point.

JORGE MARTINEZ: That’s one of the questions that you’re answering.

RAFAEL BERNABE: But my point is that one, I am against the death penalty as most Puerto Ricans are. Because we think that even in the case of atrocious crimes, the death penalty does not prevent future crimes from happening: In fact, we think It makes it worse. So we are against the death penalty. Even if Puerto Rico was a state, even if we had Congressman we would be against the death penalty. JORGE MARTINEZ: The point ? the bottom line here is that?

RAFAEL BERNABE: Let me finish my line of argument ?

JORGE MARTINEZ: The bottom line here is that this is a point that been debated in congress.

RAFAEL BERNABE: Absolutely. I understand you.

JORGE MARTINEZ: The Justice Department is ?

RAFAEL BERNABE: I understand your position. You’re speaking for the Justice Department and the Justice Department has a job of putting into practice this terrible law. And you cannot speak about politics either. But I am not being a representative of the Justice Department. I can say that most of the people in Puerto Rico are against this type of legislation. And furthermore they are in the even more terrible situation that they have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the death penalty and congress—and now the Justice Department insists on violating this sentiment of the Puerto Rican people, because prosecutors could also take into consideration the fact that they are acting in a community that has repeatedly said that they are strongly against the death penalty. This is not a mild feeling, this is not a slight sentiment against the death penalty. It’s a very strong feeling all around the island that this is not the way we want to deal with the problem of atrocious crimes in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does that feeling come from? There are many states in this country where people have the same attitude. But I’m wondering if you think the feeling in Puerto Rico is from a different place, and perhaps the relationship of Puerto Rico to the United States.

RAFAEL BERNABE: It’s something that should be studied. Historically, the opposition has been very strong ever since—if I could give you a small anecdote. In 1903 there were several executions in Puerto Rico. I was recently reading the papers of the time, and it was fascinating to find out that the people in charge of the executions almost had to force the carpenters and the people in charge of building the apparatus for carrying out the executions, because they couldn’t find anybody to do this job. So there’s a very strong ? a rejection of it?ever since the19th century most liberal progressive Puerto Ricans in the struggle against the Spanish Empire, had the abolition of the death penalty as one of their objectives, which they tended to associate with Spanish absolutism and oppression. And I guess that?s the beginning of it, but then it continued all through the 20th century. The socialist movement in the early 20th century was against it. The Partido Popular which has been the dominant party in Puerto Rico for many years was against it. They were the ones who pushed very strongly for including the elimination of the death penalty in 1952. And after that, most churches and organizations have argued that the death penalty does not help us solve the problem of violence in our society. It only increases it.

AMY GOODMAN: Any last comments or response to Professor Bernabe, Jorge Martinez?

JORGE MARTINEZ: No, I don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Well I want to thank you both very much for being with us. Spokesperson for the Justice Department, Jorge Martinez and Professor Rafael Bernabe of the University of Puerto Rico. When we come back, a debate on whether the accuser in the Kobe Bryant rape case should be named. Stay with us.

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