Puerto Ricans fight against death penalty

A U.S. federal court in Puerto Rico may sentence two men to death this week, contrary to the wishes of most Puerto Ricans and in violation of the island nation’s Constitution. The situation highlights the issue of colonialism in the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.

Earlier this month Puerto Rico’s governor, Aníbal Acevedo Vilá, sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzáles, asking him to respect the Puerto Rican Constitution and not to seek the death penalty in the case, which involved the murder of a security guard. Acevedo Vilá was a co-sponsor of a bill to abolish the federal death penalty in 2003 when he was Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, the non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives.

The current resident commissioner, Luis Fortuño, affiliated with the annexationist New Progressive Party (PNP) and a member of the GOP-oriented Congressional Hispanic Conference, was lukewarm to the idea of introducing legislation preventing the use of the death penalty in Puerto Rico, although he claimed to be against the death penalty.

At press time, the lower house of Puerto Rico’s legislature had passed a resolution against the use of the federal death penalty in Puerto Rico. Acevedo Vilá urged the Senate to do the same.

Both houses of the legislature have PNP majorities, while Acevedo Vilá is from the autonomist Popular Democratic Party. Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago of the Puerto Rican Independence Party introduced a resolution against applying the death penalty.

Archbishop Roberto Nieves González of San Juan told the press that the U.S. should “respect the desire” of the Puerto Rican people and not seek to impose it there. “We don’t believe in the death penalty because it falls, almost always, upon the poorest,” he said.

Leaders of other religious denominations have expressed similar views.

Last month the Puerto Rican Bar Association spoke out against the use of the federal death penalty. Julio Fontanet, PRBA president, criticized the U.S. attorney for Puerto Rico for supporting the death penalty “against the will of our people.”

José F. Colón, an AIDS activist, called on Puerto Rican judges on the federal bench to refuse to impose the death penalty, saying it was “the height of colonialism to impose a law contrary to the spirit of our people.”

The last execution in Puerto Rico took place in 1928. The death penalty was outlawed in 1929. That ban was reinforced by the Puerto Rican Constitution in 1952. In 2000 the Puerto Rican courts forbade the U.S. prosecutors from seeking the death penalty because of the constitutional ban. The 1st Circuit Court in Boston overruled that decision.