Puerto Rico not had an execution since 1927. It outlawed the practice two years later. So a trial in which the Justice Department is seeking the execution of two men accused of kidnapping and murder has left many Puerto Ricans baffled and angry, the New York Times reports. Politicians, members of the legal establishment, scholars and ordinary residents have denounced the trial, in its second week. They call it a betrayal of the island’s autonomy, culture and law.
Puerto Ricans associate capital punishment with the military government installed by the United States in 1898, after it took Puerto Rico from Spain in the Spanish-American War. That government executed two dozen mostly poor and illiterate people before the island outlawed the death penalty.
In court papers, prosecutors have said that federal criminal laws override local laws, whether they are statutes, state constitutions or the Puerto Rican Constitution.
The defendants in the current trial, Joel Rivera Alejandro and Héctor óscar Acosta Martínez, are accused of kidnapping a man and hacking apart his body. Justice Department guidelines allow capital charges to be filed only where the federal interest in the prosecution is more substantial than the local one. In the Clinton administration, the guidelines took account of local opposition to the death penalty.