Puerto Rico and the Federal Death Penalty: A Legacy of Colonial Paternalism

90th anniverario

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Puerto Rico. Following significant human rights progress in the nineteenth and twentieth century driven by Latin American abolitionist movements, Puerto Rico’s legislature abolished the death penalty on April 26, 1929.

A history of opposition

In 1952 the Puerto Rican Constitution further secured abolition by declaring: “The death penalty shall not exist.”

The Puerto Rican Constitution has a unique history. The Congress of the United States adopted a law in 1950 authorizing Puerto Rico to draft its own constitution. After several months of deliberation, the Constitutional Convention of Puerto Rico produced a draft Constitution. In 1952 the electorate in Puerto Rico approved that document, with support of nearly 82% of voters. After the referendum, the U.S. Congress amended the draft constitution, but did not amend the provision prohibiting the death penalty. After those amendments, the Constitutional Convention reconvened and approved a resolution accepting the congressional amendments. And in November 1952, the Puerto Rican electorate approved the amended constitution.

Commemorating 90 years of abolition

The legislature of Puerto Rico is commemorating the historic milestone of abolition of the death penalty with a joint resolution that explicitly reaffirms abolition of the death penalty and rejects the application of capital punishment as a “failed mechanism” which is implemented in an “arbitrary and discriminatory manner.”

Federal authorities have stepped up efforts to seek the death penalty in Puerto Rico

Despite Congress explicitly accepting and endorsing Puerto Rico’s Constitution, the federal government has continued to seek death sentences in Puerto Rico, ignoring strong local opposition. In this sense, today’s resolution, and the anniversary more generally, also highlight the complex colonial history of capital punishment in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s continuing commitment to fighting the death penalty reflects not only the collective, cultural opposition of its citizens to capital punishment, but also a world view that recognizes the fundamental incompatibility of the death penalty with human rights. At a time when there may be ominous backsliding on these issues at the federal level, Puerto Rico is leading by example.

The Juan Pedro Vidal case sheds light on these tensions

When the federal government seeks the death penalty in Puerto Rico, it is violating not only the right of all persons to be protected from cruel and inhuman punishment, but also the right of self-determination of the people of Puerto Rico.

Today’s joint resolution by the Puerto Rican legislature highlights a decision issued earlier this month by Judge Gustavo A. Gelpi of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico. In that decision, Judge Gelpi rejected Juan Pedro Vidal’s argument that the Federal Death Penalty Act does not apply to Puerto Rico.

Vidal argued that U.S. citizens who reside in Puerto Rico should not be subject to federal civil and criminal laws that are crafted by representatives for whom they did not vote, particularly in light of the history of Puerto Rico’s decision to abolish the death penalty and the formal act of the U.S. Congress approving that decision.

In a four-page opinion, Judge Gelpi rejected Vidal’s arguments, asserting that capital punishment falls into a category of federal laws that apply equally to all citizens, independent of questions of geography. The court stated that the issue of disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico presented a question to be resolved through the political process, not the court. Moreover, the court reasoned, even though the Puerto Rican Constitution prohibits capital punishment, federal law preempts state law for federal crimes, as would be true in any other state.

The principle of consent of the governed

The court’s order ignores Puerto Rico’s unique status and history which place the people of Puerto Rico in a “democratic void,” unable to seek adequate political or legal recourse. Today’s joint resolution noted this dissonance, emphasizing that U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico have no say in the federal government policy that can take their lives.

Steven Potolsky, who represented Pedro Vidal and specializes in death penalty defense, argued that it was precisely due to this lack of representation that judicial action was necessary. Potolsky emphasized that because the U.S. Congress had originally accepted Puerto Rico’s constitutional prohibition of the death penalty, retroactive application of federal capital punishment was unreasonable and excessive, especially in light of the fact that U.S. citizens living in Puerto Rico have no democratic mechanism to voice their opposition at the federal level.

Federal judge’s arguments place Puerto Ricans in a double-bind

Although Judge Gelpi acknowledged that the lack of representation was undemocratic, he said that it was not unconstitutional, and that it was left to “the hands of Congress” to fix the problem.

The court never explains how to determine when something that is undemocratic is also unconstitutional, or why exactly the courts should not intervene. The court’s analysis drew on other opinions applying federal law to colonial territories, but ignored Puerto Rico’s distinct and unique history. The opinion seems to place Puerto Ricans in a political-legal double bind.

The court also ignores Puerto Ricans’ longstanding opposition to the death penalty. As the joint resolution highlights, no jury in Puerto Rico has ever sentenced a person to death under federal law, even after those juries have reached guilty verdicts.

Worrying trends under the Trump Administration

The court’s logic is even more worrying when framed within the broader of the death penalty in the United States since 2016. Amnesty International has documented an increase in the number of executions and death sentences since 2009 for two years in a row.

Although these numbers still remain at historical lows, the trend points to an ominous political and legal climate under the Trump presidency. They call on us to be vigilant and to combat backsliding.

In the context of Puerto Rico, the joint resolution noted that even though Puerto Ricans account for just 1% of the U.S. population, Puerto Rico accounted for 20% of all federal death penalty cases between 2012 and 2014. With these trends in mind, the federal courts should pay more careful attention to their role in safeguarding the rights of people in territories like Puerto Rico.

Continuing local, national, and international efforts to fight the death penalty

The Vidal decision has further galvanized the Puerto Rican fight against the death penalty. Kevin Miguel Rivera-Medina, President of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and of the Puerto Rican Bar Association, expressed frustration at the hearing before Judge Gelpi. Attorneys for the federal government—both white and not Puerto Rican—asserted that Puerto Ricans were not traditionally opposed to the death penalty. The argued that the death penalty was used during the 19th century and in the early 20th century. But as Rivera-Medina pointed out, they ignored the fact that during that time Puerto Rico had been under the Spanish colonial regime and then was a U.S. colonial territory.

In celebration of the 90th anniversary of Puerto Rico’s abolition of the death penalty, universities and high schools are holding round tables on the topic and the Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty is welcoming Witness to Innocence—an organization created by and for death row exonerees—to the Puerto Rican legislature.

The Advocates for Human Rights is preparing to bring these issues to the international stage

In May 2020, the United States will participate in its third Universal Periodic Review at the U.N. Human Rights Council. During the last UPR, The Advocates raised the issue of the death penalty in Puerto Rico in a joint stakeholder report coauthored with the Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Greater Caribbean for Life We are busy preparing an updated report that will identify some of the recent developments in Puerto Rico and throughout the United States that warrant the world’s attention. For more information about using the United Nations to promote human rights, see Chapter 9 of Human Rights Tools for a Changing World. To read more about the death penalty in the United States and other countries, consult our online library of UN submissions.

By Shubhankar Dharmadhikari, an intern with the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights. He is a student at the University of Minnesota.

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