Thousands in PR hold vigil for murdered gay teen

AP News
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Posted: Nov 25, 2009 8:28 PM

Thousands of people marched through Puerto Rico's capital on Wednesday, celebrating the life of a gay teenager whose dismembered, burned body was found dumped along a road in a small mountain town.

The crowd, many of them carrying candles as a breezy dusk settled over San Juan, were also demanding that authorities invoke a law for the first time covering crimes based on sexual orientation in the U.S. territory.

"We're gay people, straight people, young people, old people. It is Puerto Rico that's walking tonight," Pedro Julio Serrano, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said among the marchers gathered outside the island's Department of Justice.

The mutilated body of 19-year-old college student Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado was discovered Nov. 13 along a road in the town of Cayey. He was a volunteer for organizations advocating HIV prevention and gay rights, and Serrano said there have been vigils for him in a dozen cities, including Los Angeles and New York.

Juan Martinez Matos, the 26-year-old suspect held in the case, allegedly met Lopez in an area known for prostitution, according to prosecutor Jose Bermudez Santos.

The prosecutor said Martinez confessed to stabbing Lopez, who was dressed as a woman, after discovering he was a man.

It could not be immediately determined if Martinez is being represented by a lawyer. Officials for the island's public defenders office could not be reached Wednesday evening.

Gay activists have voiced outrage that Martinez wasn't immediately charged with a hate crime. He has been charged with murder.

Ana Quintero, a spokeswoman for Justice Secretary Antonio Sagardia, said the murder case was still under investigation and officials would pursue it as a hate crime if the evidence warrants.

A 2002 hate crime law in this U.S. territory has not been applied to any cases involving sexual orientation or gender identity despite calls to use it more aggressively, Serrano said. A suspect convicted of a hate crime offense as part of another crime automatically faces the maximum penalty for the underlying crime. For murder, that would be life in prison.

Serrano said he has identified at least 10 slayings on the island over the last seven years that should have been investigated as hate crimes, including some in which the victims were sex workers.

Two U.S. Congress members from New York, who are of Puerto Rican origin, have suggested prosecuting the case under new federal hate crimes legislation that extended coverage to sexual orientation. President Barack Obama signed it last month.