Jul 28, 2003
U.S. Justice Department prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for two men accused of kidnaping and murder in a trial now underway in Puerto Rico. The death penalty is being sought despite the long-standing prohibition in Puerto Rico against all capital punishment.
Justice Department prosecutors say that federal criminal laws override local laws, whether they are statutes, state constitutions or the Puerto Rican constitution. But up until 2001, the federal guidelines read: "In states where the imposition of the death penalty is not authorized by law, the fact that the maximum federal penalty is death is insufficient, standing alone, to show a more substantial interest in federal prosecution."
However, in 2001 with President Hang-Them-High Bush from Texas pushing for as many death sentences as possible, Attorney General John Ashcroft eliminated this guideline. Since then Justice Department officials have overridden recommendations from local officials and brought capital charges, seeking the death penalty in jurisdictions where the death penalty is not authorized.
It's already an indication of complete contempt for the will of the people when the federal government imposes the death penalty this way in, let's say, the state of Michigan, where the state constitution has prohibited the death penalty ever since 1847, just one year after the founding of the state. But the U.S. pretends that Puerto Rico is an "associated free state," a "commonwealth" with political and legal autonomy from the federal government.
The Justice Department actions in this case make it obvious that this "autonomy" is a myth. In reality, Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S. This is particularly clear when you consider that opposition to the death penalty in Puerto Rico developed after the U.S. took Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898. The government the U.S. imposed on Puerto Rico executed two dozen mostly poor and illiterate people. Opposition to the death penalty was linked to opposition to U.S. domination.
The last execution in Puerto Rico took place in 1927. Two years later capital punishment was banned. In 1952, the prohibition against capital punishment was written into Puerto Rico's constitution: "The death penalty shall not exist."
Arturo Luis Davila Toro, the president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association recently explained why he and many other local leaders in Puerto Rico, who have supported Puerto Rico being a commonwealth of the United States, are nonetheless angered by the Justice Department's attempt to impose the death penalty through a federal prosecution: "Although we are talking about some facts that are very gruesome (the kidnappers shot and dismembered their victim), the people of Puerto Rico do not approve in any way of capital punishment../... How can I explain that my constitution is not respected by the nation that teaches us how to live in a democracy?"
Yes, how? Except to explain that the U.S. is not a democracy.
Today, the death penalty is banned in all the economically developed countries of the world, except for the U.S., and in many poor countries, too. Most Puerto Ricans, like most people in these other countries, understand that capital punishment is barbarous, government-sanctioned murder that does nothing to discourage criminal violence and murder by ordinary citizens, but rather encourages it. By attempting to impose state-sanctioned murder on Puerto Rico, the U.S. government is showing its barbarous nature, as well as its continued contempt for the Puerto Rican people.