Tuesday, November 3, 2015
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.