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Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice is considering whether to retry two reputed gang members acquitted in a controversial capital trial in federal district court in San Juan, according to the secretary’s spokeswoman. It was the first capital trial held in the commonwealth since it outlawed the death penalty in 1929. Puerto Rico’s constitution, ratified by Congress in 1952, provides: “The death penalty shall not exist.” The trial, which ended on July 31, had been widely opposed by Puerto Ricans. They believe that the federal government trampled on the commonwealth’s sovereignty when it charged a capital crime. The defendants, Hector Oscar Acosta-Martinez and Joel Rivera-Alejandro, were accused of the 1998 kidnapping and murder of a grocer. Theories abound as to why they were found not guilty. “On every public corner, you hear both that there was no credible evidence, and that every John Doe and his mother believe that they were acquitted because it was a capital murder case,” said Antonio Fernos, senior professor of constitutional law at the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico School of Law. Acosta-Martinez’s attorney, Hector Deliz of San Juan’s Deliz, Pedrosa & Hernandez, said the prosecution’s case was weak. Its chief witness was an admitted drug addict who had agreed to cooperate with the government in exchange for a reduced sentence, he said. TEXAN IN THE SPOTLIGHT Zulma Raices, director of communications for Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice, said, “The justice minister has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to send over the files in order to determine whether to file charges here or not.” The files had not yet been received. If retried, the defendants would not be subject to the death penalty. Deliz said Bert Garcia, the U.S. Attorney in Puerto Rico, had requested that the justice minister look into the possibility of retrying the men. “Garcia is a Texan, not a Puerto Rican,” Deliz said. “He does not understand our people’s opposition to the death penalty. Now he wants our local justice department to serve as a microwave to cook over whatever was left raw by his prosecution.” Garcia could not be reached for comment. His spokeswoman confirmed that Garcia had made the request. Whether retrying the men would trigger the U.S. Constitution’s double jeopardy clause will surely be a subject of debate, but the U.S. Supreme Court has generally allowed successive prosecutions by separate sovereigns. Fernos and other experts are expected to testify on Sept. 26, on behalf of three defendants fighting extradition to Pennsylvania for crimes that could subject them to the death penalty. The defendants’ attorney, Legal Aid lawyer Luis Russi, will argue that the extraditions violate international legal principles and the commonwealth’s constitution. It will be the first time defendants in Puerto Rico have fought extradition on these grounds, Russi said. Officials of Puerto Rico take the position that extradition is a U.S. constitutional mandate. The murder charges against the men who face extradition — Juan Martinez-Cruz, Abimael Casiano-Fernandez and Edwin Cuello — are unrelated.

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