Ashcroft Loses Big in Puerto Rico

Attorney General John Ashcroft has been trying to shove the death penalty down the throats of jurors all over the United States. He requires prosecutors to ask for it when they know they can’t sell it, or when they have promised a defendant life instead of the possibility of death in exchange for cooperation. Ashcroft can do that, you know, as chief law enforcement officer. But what he cannot do is force juries to swallow the death penalty.

And now, he is 1-19 in cases in which he insisted it be a sentencing option. This time, he got a resounding defeat in Puerto Rico-yea, Puerto Rico. What’s Ashcroft doing trying to bring death to Puerto Rico, whose Constitution forbids it? It is unheard of for a U.S. Attorney General to meddle in the sentencing affairs of a territory like that. But no one does arrogance better than Maximum John (well, maybe his boss, George W., comes pretty close).

As reported in The New York Times, Puerto Rican jurors not only rejected the death penalty, they acquitted the defendants. Perhaps jury nullification was at work here–jurors sending a message to Ashcroft to refrain from trying to subvert their Constitution and community values and to keep his heavy-handed madness he calls justice off their island. Indeed, the jurors sent out a question challenging the federal government’s jurisdiction of the kidnapping-murder charge.

Recall that in the Eastern District of Alexandria recently, Judge Gerald Lee Bruce threw out a jury conviction on a murder-kidnapping charge, finding that the government had brought the specious kidnapping charge in order to acquire federal jurisdiction–and get the death penalty–in what was, at best, a state murder charge.

The jury of seven men and five women cleared the men, Joel Rivera Alejandro and Hector Oscar Acosta Martinez, of all charges after three days of deliberation. Mr. Alejandro and Mr. Acosta Martinez had been 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. The two men were released from federal custody after the acquittal, while several dozen of the men’s relatives wept in the courtroom after the verdicts were read.

According to the Times report, William D. Matthewman, a lawyer for Mr. Acosta Martinez, said last night that the acquittal was a blow to the Justice Department’s attempts to administer the death penalty even in regions that oppose or outlaw it for nonfederal trials. “Imposing the death penalty in Puerto Rico is like pouring oil on one of their beautiful beaches,” Mr. Matthewman said in a phone interview. “It’s unnecessary, and the federal government has been dealt a severe blow in their attempt to nationalize the death penalty.”

Puerto Rico abolished capital punishment in 1929 and has not had an execution since 1927, when a farm worker found guilty of beheading his boss with a machete was hanged. Much of the heavily Catholic population opposes the death penalty on religious and moral grounds.

There is evidence that support for the death penalty is eroding all over the in the States. Many reasons account for this, not the least of which is an increasing awareness that innocent people must have died, given the high rate of exonerations based on DNA evidence. More than 100 innocent men have been released from death row in the past ten years.

President Bush loves the death penalty so much that he and his now White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales barely reviewed the files of condemned Texans before they were executed, a sad tale reported in the July-August issue of Atlantic Monthly. And recall how Bush mocked Karla Faye Tucker’s plea for mercy during his 2000 presidential campaign.

We cannot expect Bush and Ashcroft to use common sense or acquire compassion. We can expect that their arrogance might catch up with them where it matters to their hard hearts–at the polls.

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia, teachers law and psychology, and follows the Bush regime’s dismantling of the Constitution at Civil Liberties Watch. She can be reached at: