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The Death Penalty in Puerto Rico

The death penalty was abolished in Puerto Rico in 1929, two years after the last hanging took place in the U.S. territory. “The death penalty shall not exist” is part of the territory’s 1952 constitution, approved by the U.S. Congress. In 1994, the United States government determined that the death penalty could be applied in federal cases, in spite of Puerto Rico’s local laws against it.

In 2000, U.S. District Judge Salvador Casellas ruled that the death penalty could not be applied in Puerto Rico because residents there have no voting representation in Congress, which reinstated the federal death penalty. “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.”

A judge in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the decision the following year, saying that the argument was “political” rather than a legal objection.

The case is one of two death penalty cases expected to be tried in Puerto Rico this year, those of Juan Pedro Vidal and Alexis Candelario Santana. Four other cases calling for the death penalty have been tried in Puerto Rico since 1994, but the death penalty has not been applied in the territory since 1927.

El Nuevo Dia, in an editorial marking the anniversary of Puerto Rico’s abolition of the death penalty, wrote, “We are obliged to reiterate our strongest rejection of a punishment that, in addition to being barbaric and immoral, has not been proven to have any important deterrent against crime, is applied disproportionately against people from the most vulnerable sectors of society, is much more expensive than imprisoning convicts for life and, if that were not enough, results in a traumatic process even for the relatives of the victims.

On December 27, 2009, then-Puerto Rican Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (D) sent a letter—signed by nine of his colleagues, including then-House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) — urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder “to revise U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) policies and procedures so that, absent compelling circumstances, the federal death penalty will not be sought in states or territories, such as Puerto Rico, that specifically prohibits its application.”

Puerto Rico has been entirely clear in its rejection of the death penalty, but the federal government has been equally clear that the federal interest is “more substantial” than that of Puerto Rico, as Attorney General Eric Holder later phrased it in a 2011 memorandum.

After decades of official statements to the contrary, there is still a belief by some in Puerto Rico that the United States and Puerto Rico have – or can have in the future – some type of a “compact” that cannot be altered without mutual consent, with Puerto Rican power equal to that of the United States.  The fact that the death penalty exists in Puerto Rico despite clear local opposition is proof that there is no compact.  The United States government can – and will – do what it wants, even if the people of Puerto Rico disagree.


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