SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A jury in Puerto Rico was deliberating Wednesday whether a convicted drug dealer should be executed for killing a girlfriend who was an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
It could be a landmark case for the U.S. territory, where the death penalty is constitutionally illegal and where the last execution occurred in 1927 by hanging.
Although the local jury has the last word, the case against Edison Burgos Montes is being tried in a federal court, which allows for the death penalty.
If the jury opts for capital punishment, Burgos would be executed on the U.S. mainland in a state selected by the Bureau of Prisons, said Lymarie Llovet, spokeswoman for Puerto Rico's U.S. Attorney's Office. If the jury rejects the death penalty, Burgos would be sentenced to life imprisonment, she said.
Burgos was found guilty in late August of killing Madelyn Semidey Morales in July 2005.
The jury began deliberating Tuesday morning and requested clarification Wednesday on several aggravating factors presented by prosecutors. In addition, an alternate juror replaced one juror who was dismissed for medical reasons.
As they deliberated, dozens of people held a vigil outside the federal courthouse to protest the case. Among those are members of the United Evangelical Church, which condemned the death penalty.
"Today we are allergic to forgiveness and to the respect for life," the church said in a statement.
The case also has stirred anger among Puerto Ricans who resent U.S. involvement in what they say are local affairs. Julio Muriente, co-president of a political party that favors independence, accused U.S. authorities of ignoring Puerto Rico's constitution.
"The U.S. government unilaterally imposes its will through the federal court," he said.
The victim's mother, Georgina Morales, told El Nuevo Dia newspaper when the trial began in April that she does not believe in capital punishment.
"It's not sufficient punishment for me," said Morales. "I want the justice system to impose the punishment, but I want it to be prison."
Morales and other relatives have since declined to speak to the media, though the victim's father, Carlos Semidey, gave news outlets a handwritten note this week lamenting that his daughter's body had not been found. "If anyone knows where we can find her remains, please contact the necessary agencies so we can give her a Christian burial," it said.
Madelyn Semidey also left behind three young daughters.
Puerto Rico juries previously rejected death sentences for federal cases in 2005 and 2006.
The U.S. Attorney's Office expects that two other death penalty cases will go to trial in January, Llovet said.
In an effort to fight crime, Puerto Rico's government has asked federal authorities to assume prosecution of certain cases, including carjackings, drive-by shootings and weapon possessions. The island of nearly 4 million people reported a record 1,117 homicides last year.
Puerto Rico banned the death penalty in 1929, two years after farmworker Pascual Ramos was hanged for beheading his boss with a machete. Prior to that, the U.S. military government had executed 23 people, all black and most of them poor or illiterate, after troops seized the island in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
When Puerto Rico approved its first constitution in 1952, it reiterated that capital punishment was illegal and constituted a human rights violation.
But federal prosecutors have continued to seek the death penalty in certain cases.
In 2000, Puerto Rican Judge Salvador Casellas ruled that applying the death penalty would violate Puerto Rico's constitution as well as the federal statute concerning its status as a self-governing entity. His decision was overturned in 2001 by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which ruled that Puerto Rico is subject to federal law. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision.
Puerto Rico joins 17 U.S. states that do not apply the death penalty.