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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Concerns About Enforcing Federal Death Penalty in Puerto Rico

From the DPIC:  Although no jury has returned a death sentence in a federal case in Puerto Rico in modern times, more cases are pending, raising concerns among many citizens.  Puerto Rico bars the death penalty in its constitution.  However, a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in 2001 held that the federal death penalty can be applied there.  This decision overturned a lower court that ruled the use of the federal death penalty in the Commonwealth would be unconstitutional.  The issue has not been reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.  "It’s still an open issue for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide," said death penalty counsel William Matthewman.  Opponents of the death penalty point to the fact that American Indian tribes get to choose whether the federal death penalty applies on their land.

The federal death penalty may be sought even over the recommendations of the local U.S. Attorney in Puerto Rico.  U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez noted, "Sometimes we do not recommend a case for the death penalty and Washington certifies it." According to Esperanza López, the mother of recent death penalty defendant Carlos Ayala López, this was the case with her son. "The local U.S. Attorney’s Office was negotiating a plea deal with my son, but then the death penalty certification came down from Washington. It was [former U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft who decided to make the case against my son a death penalty one."  Ayala was eventually convicted but spared the death penalty by the jury.

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