Puerto Rico and the Death Penalty


FACTS ABOUT THE DEATH PENALTY IN PUERTO RICO
Last Execution 1927
Person last Executed Pascual Ramos, for Murder
Total Number of Executions 589 (dating back to 16th Cent.)

Method of Execution Hanging
Death Penalty Abolished 1929

HISTORY OF THE DEATH PENALTY IN PUERTO RICO
Capital punishment was used during the Spanish regime. The first verified executions took place in 1514, when four slaves were hanged for uprising. The first Inquisition court in the western hemisphere was established in San Juan in 1519.

 

The number of persons executed in Puerto Rico is:

 
Century 
16th 289
17th  70
18th  44
19th 159
20th  27

 

(Source: Jalil Sued-Badillo, PhD., La Pena de Muerte en Puerto Rico: Retrospectiva histórica para una reflexión contemporánea,  Puerto Rico, 2000.)

The modern death penalty was introduced to Puerto Rico in 1898 by the incoming American government established when Spain turned Puerto Rico over to the United States following the Spanish American War. Puerto Rico abolished the death penalty in 1929, two years after their last execution. In 1952, when Puerto Rico drafted and ratified their own constitution, the Bill of Rights included the straightforward decree "the death penalty shall not exist." Because of Puerto Rico's status as a Commonwealth of the United States, it is subject to some federal laws, and the U.S. has recently sought the death penalty on federal charges in a number of cases. However, no death sentences have resulted. (Orlando Sentinel, July 13, 2003).

RELATED LINKS TO THE DEATH PENALTY IN PUERTO RICO
DPIC's Page on the Federal Death Penalty
DPIC's Spanish Language Section

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS IN PUERTO RICO

Puerto Rican Court Bars Extradition of Man Facing Death Penalty to Pennsylvania

An Appeal Court of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico recently held that it would be unconstitutional to extradite Juan Melendez Cruz to Pennsylvania if he faces a possible death sentence. The court referred to the issue as one involving the fundamental right to life. In July 2003, Philadelphia District Attorney spokeswoman Cathie Abookire confirmed that Melendez Cruz, a Puerto Rican native, could face the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Melendez Cruz's attorney, Eileen Diaz, argued that extradition of her client under such circumstances is prohibited by the Puerto Rican constitution. The Attorney General of Puerto Rico plans to appeal the decision to the Puerto Rican Supreme Court. (Primera Hora, "Apelativo ratifica rechazo a pena capital: Extradicion sujeta a garantia de vida del reo," October 21, 2005).

Puerto Rico abolished the death penalty in 1929. In 1952, when Puerto Rico drafted and ratified its own constitution, the Bill of Rights included the decree that "the death penalty shall not exist." Because of Puerto Rico's status as a Commonwealth of the United States, it is subject to some federal laws, and the U.S. has recently sought the death penalty on federal charges in a number of cases. However, no death sentences have resulted.

Federal Death Penalty Case in Puerto Rico Prompts Protests
Despite the fact that the Constitution defining Puerto Rico's status as a self-governing commonwealth associated with the United States unconditionally bans capital punishment, the U.S. is seeking the federal death penalty in the trial of two Puerto Rican men. The trial has spurred grass-root protests against the death penalty. Gov. Sila M. Calderon, the Commonwealth's top elected official, said the case demonstrates the need to further reform the U.S. - Puerto Rican relationship, especially in regard to federal laws "that infringe on our culture, our own laws and our customs." Arturo Luis Davila Toro, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, reiterated her concerns, stating, "We don't believe in capital punishment, and they are trying to impose it on us." Jury selection for the trial took place last week at the U.S. District Court in San Juan. (Los Angeles Times, June 9, 2003).
The trial ended on July 31, 2003 when Joel Rivera Alejandro and Hector Oscar Acosta-Martinez were acquitted of all charges by the jury. It was not clear whether the question of federal jurisdiction and the death penalty affected the jury's decision. William Matthewman, attorney for Mr. Acosta-Martinez, said that imposing the death penalty upon Puerto Rico "is like pouring oil on one of their beautiful beaches." Despite this conflict, Matthewman believes that it was a lack of evidence (including over 200 samples of DNA not matching his client) that led to the acquittal. (New York Times, August 1, 2003)

Court Rules Death Penalty Applies in Puerto Rico
A federal appeals court in Boston held that the federal death penalty applies in Puerto Rico. The ruling overturns a district court decision last year that held the death penalty could not apply because citizens of Puerto Rico cannot vote in Congressional elections, and thus have no voice on the issue. (Miami Herald, June 6, 2001)

Judge Rules Puerto Rico Not Subject to Federal Death Penalty
U.S. District Judge Salvador Casellas ruled that the federal death penalty cannot be applied in Puerto Rico because residents there have no voting representation in Congress, which passed laws reinstating 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," wrote Casellas. U.S. Attorney Guillermo Gil said his office will ask the solicitor general to appeal. Puerto Rico's Constitution prohibits the use of the death penalty, and the U.S. territory has not executed anybody in 73 years. (Orlando Sentinel, July 19, 2000)

In 1997, Puerto Rican Representative Jorge de Castro, a member of the Popular Democratic Party, submitted a resolution in the territory´s legislature requesting the US Attorney General to declare Puerto Rico exempt from the death penalty. And the Reverend Moses Rosa, executive secretary of Puerto Rico´s Evangelical Council, was quoted by Reuters news agency as pointing out that "both the Catholic and Protestant churches have strongly opposed the death penalty throughout the last century. That has only solidified the Puerto Rican consciousness against capital punishment." But members of the ruling New Progressive Party, which seeks statehood for Puerto Rico, claim that the Puerto Rican constitution is a federal document and that there is nothing to prevent federal imposition of capital punishment in the territory. (Amnesty International, March 1997)