EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

What Happened in the Death Penalty Case Cristina Gutierrez Handled in Puerto Rico?

On last night's episode of the Undisclosed Podcast, we discussed the Acosta Martinez case, in which the U.S. government argued that The Federal Death Penalty Act applied in Puerto Rico, despite the territory prohibiting capital punishment in its Bill of Rights. Specifically, the Puerto Rican Bill of Rights simply states that "the death penalty shall not exist." We discussed the thumbnail of what happened in that case: (1) Gutierrez initially successfully argued that The Federal Death Penalty Act doesn't apply in Puerto Rico; (2) the government appealed; (3) Gutierrez failed to file a responsive brief, and her replacement was also unable to file a brief; and (4) the First Circuit later found that The Federal Death Penalty Act does apply in Puerto Rico. 

In this post, I will look at the case with a bit of a wider lens.

First, let's look at the facts: 

[Joel Rivera] Alejandro and [Héctor Óscar] Acosta Martínez [were] accused of shooting to death and dismembering a grocery store owner in February 1998 after kidnapping him and not receiving the $1 million ransom they demanded.

New Attorney General John Ashcroft decided to pursue the death penalty in the case. According to a New York Times article,

Under Attorney General John Ashcroft, the department has been seeking the death penalty more often and in more places than earlier administrations had, and officials in Washington regularly override local recommendations not to seek the death penalty. The idea, Justice Department officials have said, was to treat those charged with serious crimes similarly regardless of where the crime took place.

The local recommendation in Puerto Rico was not to impose the death penalty. The last execution in the territory had been in 1927, when Pascual Ramos was hanged for murdering his boss with a machete. Two years later, puerto Ricans abolished capital punishment.

According to the attorney who took over for Gutierrez, ''Imposing the death penalty in Puerto Rico is like pouring oil on one of their beautiful beaches." The territory's heavily Catholic population opposes the death penalty on religious and moral grounds.

The Acosta Martinez case, however, did not end with a death sentence. A jury of seven men and five women acquitted Alejandro, Acosta Martínez, and another defendant after three days of deliberations. Acosta Martinez's attorney

believed the jury acquitted the defendants primarily because of a lack of evidence. For example, he said, none of more than 200 DNA samples collected from the crime scene matched his client.

Did the antipathy toward the death penalty play a role in the acquittal? It's impossible to tell. I went to college at UVA, where violations of the honor code are punishable by the single speculation of expulsion. This led many to believe that students were found "not guilty" of honor code offenses because their fellow students were uncomfortable with this single sanction.

It's tough to say whether the Puerto Rican jurors in Acosta Martinez's case had such thoughts, even if they were merely in the backs of their minds. What I do know is that, despite the death penalty now being applicable in Puerto Rico, it hasn't been imposed in a single case.



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Does Jury Nullification apply here? heres where i learned this rule : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqH_Y1TupoQ

Posted by: Dustin | Nov 3, 2015 12:07:43 PM

I listen to you guys faithfully every week but this is the first time I've written in and I just wanted to say last nights episode was....EXCELLENT. I'm on the verge of tears at work, the music was beautiful! Just excellent, thorough and MORE than what I could have hoped a profile about "Tina" would/could be.

You, Rabia and Susan should def. win some type of award for this episode.


Posted by: Tiffany | Nov 3, 2015 12:51:39 PM

So did Christina's laziness/malpractice failing to file a response brief create case law that is binding precedent, making the death penalty allowed in PR in other cases? Because if so, there's a pretty crazy butterfly effect attached to Gutierrez.

Posted by: Zach T | Nov 3, 2015 6:42:06 PM

Dustin: That could have been the case.

Tiffany: Thanks!

Zach T: Yes, you nailed it.

Posted by: Colin | Nov 3, 2015 6:56:14 PM

I listen to your last episode and I honestly felt bad for Gutierrez. To see someone's down fall play out is sad. All the lives she impacted and hurt. It truly a tragedy.

Posted by: Gee | Nov 3, 2015 7:55:45 PM

So to quote the time honoured adage, are you guys going to 'follow the money'? Cristina Gutierrez was found guilty of taking money from clients and not performing the work associated with that money. And it was a lot of money. Did the money refunded to badly treated clients come from her or did it come from a type of insurance fund for lawyers gone bad? If she didn't personally repay the money, where did it go? Susan said on the most recent podcast that Gutierrez did not live a lifestyle outside what could be expected of a lawyer in her situation. Any ideas?

Posted by: FarFarAway | Nov 3, 2015 9:06:01 PM

Colin, great episode. As a diabetic (type 1- I assume CG was type 2?), CG sounded very much to me like a diabetic in serious hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) during her rambling, disjointed cross in the clip at the very end of the episode. Was the trial stopped? Did she receive emergency medical attention right then? I'm also just stunned that the judge, in the earlier clip, allowed her to finish a cross before going to check her blood sugar and possibly medicate. It's amazing that such a common disease is so little understood by most--diabetics in hypoglycemia are routinely treated like they're under the influence of alcohol or drugs by law enforcement. If CG's diabetes was poorly controlled, as it sounds like it was, it certainly could have a major impact on her effectiveness. Is there any precedent for accessing an attorney's medical records to prove IAC?

Posted by: ETC | Nov 3, 2015 10:05:10 PM

How often has the negligent failure of one party to file a brief on a matter of first impression created important case law in our system? It would be disturbing if the law were littered with these precedents.

Posted by: Zach T | Nov 4, 2015 7:13:12 AM

I am dumbfounded that anyone could not see the IAC in Adnan's case. All you have to do is read CG's closing arguments. She is completely incoherent; unable to string two sentences together to make a point, even worse than she was in this week's episode snippet. I kept waiting for someone to stop down the trial to find out what was wrong with her, but they never did. Tragic!

Posted by: morag143 | Nov 5, 2015 7:16:47 AM

Gee: I also feel sorry for her.

FarFarAway: I wish we had a way to follow the money.

ETC: Thanks.

Zach T: I’m sure it’s pretty rare.

morag143: Yes, her closing was pretty bad.

Posted by: Colin | Nov 7, 2015 5:38:04 PM

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