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Acquittals Quash a U.S. Bid for Death Penalties in Puerto Rico

August 02, 2003|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Puerto Rico's first death penalty case in more than 75 years has ended with the federal jury acquittal of both defendants. On Friday, the island's top justice official indicated that the men could be retried in Puerto Rican courts.

Capital punishment has been illegal in Puerto Rico since 1929. But the two defendants in a kidnap-murder case were tried in the U.S. District Court in San Juan under the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act, which broadens the range of federal crimes punishable by death. A U.S. appellate court in Boston ruled that the trial could go forward.

On Thursday, a federal jury in Puerto Rico's capital found Hector Oscar Acosta "Gordo" Martinez and Joel Rivera Alejandro not guilty. They had been charged in the 1998 abduction and murder of a grocery store owner, Jorge Hernandez Diaz, whose body was dismembered and dumped on a roadside.

According to Associated Press accounts, the defendants smiled and hugged their lawyers upon hearing the verdict, and relatives in the courtroom wept.

The fact the two men faced capital punishment may have played a part in the decision of the seven-man, five-woman federal jury, a defense lawyer indicated afterward. "When it's said that Puerto Rico doesn't want the death penalty, the jury demonstrated that," said Hector Deliz, an attorney for Acosta Martinez.

Federal prosecutors declined comment after the verdict. But many people on the island of 4 million had strongly objected to the capital trial. They maintained that U.S. authorities had no right, under the 1952 constitution defining Puerto Rico as a self-governing commonwealth associated with the U.S., to seek the death penalty there. The constitution reiterated the earlier ban on capital punishment.

The former defendants' legal problems, though, may not be over. They were not immediately released from federal custody, and on Friday, Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Anabelle Rodriguez, the island's equivalent of a state attorney general, announced that she was opening her own investigation. Her spokesman said she had asked the federal prosecutor, Humberto Garcia, for his files.

"Here we have an assassination which cannot remain unpunished," Rodriguez said in a statement. "We propose to act in this case with all the severity of the law, so that those responsible for the death of the merchant Jorge Hernandez Diaz answer for their act."

Rafael Castro Lang, one of the lawyers representing Alejandro, had maintained that the case never belonged in the federal courts, but should have been prosecuted under Puerto Rico's legal system.

One of the U.S. government's arguments for jurisdiction -- that the victim was a grocer and thus engaged in interstate commerce -- was contrived, Lang said.

The defendants were charged with first-degree murder and extortion in what authorities said was the kidnapping of Diaz for a $1-million ransom. When members of the victim's family called police, the defendants killed Diaz, according to the indictment.

A star prosecution witness testified that the defendants hired him to serve as a lookout. But under cross-examination, he admitted that he was addicted to cocaine and heroin at the time.

According to historians, the last execution in Puerto Rico took place in 1927, when a rural farm worker was hanged for beheading his boss with a machete.

Puerto Rico Gov. Sila M. Calderon, who has called the death penalty "immoral," said, as the federal trial began in June, that the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship needed to evolve so that the U.S. is more respectful of the island's culture, customs and laws.

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