Juan Roberto Meléndez and Joaquín José Martínez (Teresa Canino )

"The Death Penalty, as a punishment for committing a serious crime, does not seem to be in harmony with modern civilization. To many, it seems like a reminiscence of barbarism.” 

This is not a recent statement, it´s not even a few years old. 

This is what Puerto Rico governor Horace Towner said in 1929 when he signed the abolition of the death penalty into law. 

Puerto Rico commemorated that moment last Friday, April 26, on the 90th anniversary of the permanent ban on the capital punishment in Puerto Rican state courts.

Different sectors, such as the Legislature, the San Juan Municipal Assembly, the Catholic Church, Amnesty International and the Puerto Rico Bar Association (CAAPR), which hosted a series of talks with people who have been exonerated from the death row in U.S. prisons, joined this rejection to the death penalty.

In the meantime, the commemoration comes at a time when the debate regarding the death penalty under the federal government on the island is being revived. 

After four federal death penalty trials on the island between 2012 and 2013, the debate resurfaces with two ongoing cases eligible for that punishment, and two other death penalty eligible cases pending approval or not of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

State abolition 

Of the 17 people condemned to be executed at the beginning of the last century, Pascual Ramos was the last one, on September 15, 1927.  He was sentenced after attacking with a machete a butler from Hacienda Sabater de Guayama, according to Jacobo Chirino in his book "Los que murieron en la horca" (Those who died on the gallows). 

Two years later, while considering Juan García Ducos' "House Bill 6," Governor Towner acknowledged that he had received "so many" letters, telegrams and visits regarding the measure. 

That year, on April 26, as reported later in the newspaper El Mundo, Towner indicated that this punishment did not even serve as a deterrent, while the capital punishment was suspended on the island - between 1918 and 1921 – crimes did not increase. 

He also noted that in the five years following the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1921, the average number of murders increased from 25 to 44. 

Towner noted then that if its restrictive effect were to be considered, it would appear that abolition had had such an effect and that the legal restitution of the death penalty had acted as an incentive for this terrible crime. 

Subsequently, the prohibition was included in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952. 

At Federal level

Meanwhile, in the United States, a total of 1,494 convicts have been executed, including three of the 78 sentenced by federal courts since 1988, when the U.S. government reinstated the capital punishment, which was later extended in 1994. 

Today, 20 states ban the death penalty. Of that total, only four abolished it before Puerto Rico. 

For decades, activists and officials on the island have called on federal authorities not to apply the death penalty, referring to the consensus of the people who voted to approve Puerto Rico's Constitution. 

In the past few months, the Federal Court received several constitutional arguments from "friends of the court" (amicus curiae) and from the parties in the case against Juan Pedro Vidal, discussing whether or not to eliminate the federal death penalty on the island due to the lack of electoral representation of its residents. 

The federal government cannot prosecute someone for murder, but it is included as an element when that death is the result of another crime, such as kidnapping, carjacking, assault or violation of gun laws, among others. 

In the end, Judge Gustavo Gelpí, who has favored accusations of discrimination, did not accept the request because he understood that the law does treat island residents the same as those who do vote for those who pass laws in Congress members and in the White House because they live in any of the 50 states. 

Meanwhile, during the argumentative hearing, from the federal prosecutor´s office they questioned Puerto Rico's alleged culture against the death penalty by going back to Spanish colonial times, indicating that "the past could not be ignored" and that for "400 years, even before the United States existed, people were already being executed" in Puerto Rico. 

"Puerto Rico was ahead of many more developed countries around the world with the abolition and they (the federal authorities) are the ones that are taking us back to the past," said Edgardo Román Espada, president of the Puerto Rico Bar Association (CAAPR, Spanish acronym). "The death penalty is aimed at going back to what no longer exists. It's like returning to slavery after it was abolished.” 

"There is no reason to support it. It is not a deterrent against criminality, which can only be addressed through other means, such as reducing impunity," he added. "Revenge is not justice. A justice system cannot be ruled by murderers. It has to be rational, thinking about rehabilitation and if it is not achieved, that's what prison is for, there, criminals will no longer be a danger to society,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Kevin Miguel Rivera Medina, president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, remarked that this sentence has been internationally repudiated, not only because it is a punishment that goes against human rights, but also because of studies that point out that the application is disproportionate for some sectors of the population. 

"Ninety-five percent of the people in the death row are poor. In the United States it is a punishment exclusively for the poor," Rivera Medina said, referring to the recent decision by the Washington State Supreme Court on the inequality in that type of punishment eliminated last year. 

"The death penalty can never be a humane way of doing justice. We have alternatives that are good enough to avoid the execution," he added. "And for those who talk about the cost of an inmate sentenced to life in prison, it is also proven that the cost of the death penalty trial, with its defense, experts, appeals and other processes, make that sentence more costly to the people.  

Irreversible error 

As part of the anniversary, the organization "Witness to Innocence" held its annual meeting for the first time in Puerto Rico. Its members are people who were exonerated while waiting their turn to be executed in U.S. prisons. 

One of them was Puerto Rican Juan Meléndez, who spent more than 17 years on the Florida death row until an audio recording of the real responsible for the murder he had been charged with was found. 

"If there is a mistake, then a person sentenced to life in prison can be released, but that is not possible for someone in a grave," said Meléndez, who shared his traumatic experience with several Puerto Rican students this week. 

"People have to understand that the death penalty doesn't eliminate crime, it's cruel, it's racist and we have alternatives," he said, after recounting the suffering his family went through. 

Joaquín Martínez was there with Along with Meléndez. He was the first Spanish citizen to be exonerated from the death row in the United States, where he was three years for a crime he did not commit. 

He said that not even a negative DNA result prevented him from being condemned to the electric chair and that he could only be saved after new trial following an international campaign that included Pope John Paul II, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar as well as members of the European Parliament. 

"If those people who were executed in the last 10, 20, 30 years in the United States had had some of the support I received, we would have about 300 people off the death row," said Martínez, who believes his case proves how arbitrarily that punishment is handled. 

"It is supposed to be applied to the worst possible case. I was accused of stabbing a girl 35 times. Well, they get me a new trial and on the very first day, the first thing the prosecution does is to withdraw the death penalty petition. Is that justice? I'm in the same courtroom, with the same charges and the same judge, but another prosecutor... Had I been another Hispanic, without the resources and without Spanish senators sitting in the front row (of the court), they would have asked for the death penalty again," he said. 

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, between 1988 and 2017, federal courts authorized the death penalty against 503 people, 73 percent from minorities. 

Abolitionist movement 

Martínez and Meléndez are two of the 165 exonerated from the death row in the United States. Human rights activist Judi Caruso, a New México attorney and Melendez's partner, expects their public presentations will raise awareness on the issue and that there will be more states that ban the capital punishment, but also hopes that someday there will be enough pressure in Congress to abolish it at the federal level. 

She noted that in some areas in the United States, polls still show 65 percent in favor of the capital punishment, "but when they are asked about the life imprisonment alternative, then almost 70 percent are in favor of that option and the other decreases. That's an important tool to continue the fight to abolish it.” 

"There are 20 states that ban it, and five states with moratoriums, including California, which has the largest death row. There is also a moratorium in Pennsylvania, where there are about 12 Puerto Ricans," Caruso said. 

"Meanwhile, out of the 30 where it's still legal, it's only being implemented in five, so it's losing popularity. Even in Texas," she said. 

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