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Governor voices opposition to retroactive unanimous verdicts

By on May 30, 2020

Says legislation, responding to landmark Supreme Court ruling, would open up wounds for crime victims

SAN JUAN – Gov. Wanda Vázquez expressed her opposition Friday to a Senate-passed bill being considered in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives that would retroactively apply a recent landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring jury unanimity for guilty verdicts in criminal cases, and allow local felons convicted by non-unanimous juries to request new trials.

Senate Bill 1590, introduced by Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz and passed unanimously by the upper chamber last week, would amend the commonwealth Criminal Procedure Rules (CPR) to require juries in local courts to render unanimous verdicts for criminal convictions, in conformity with the U.S. high court ruling handed down April 20 in the case of Ramos v. Louisiana. In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that guilty verdicts for criminal trials be unanimous, and that this requirement must also be an incorporated right against the states.

The CPR establishes that a minimum of nine votes is needed for a jury verdict of not guilty. Federal courts have required unanimous juries in felony convictions.

Soon afterward, on May 8, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Pueblo v. Tomás Torres Rivera, stating that the Ramos v. Louisiana ruling applies to the island. The Senate bill would allow any person serving a sentence of imprisonment as a result of a verdict that was not unanimous to present a motion requesting a new trial.

The legislation acknowledges, however, that the U.S. top court ruling applies to current cases being tried in court in which a verdict has not been reached. Moreover, the bill states that the retroactivity of the ruling has yet to be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing a case related to this matter.

‘Total disagreement’

On Wednesday, the Puerto Rico Court of Appeals ordered a new trial for former insurance broker Pablo Casellas Toro, who was convicted in 2014 for the murder of his wife, Carmen Paredes. Citing the U.S. high court ruling, Casellas requested an annulment of his trial, in which a jury found him guilty in an 11-1 vote.

Expressing her opposition to the bill, which is now being considered by the House, Gov. Vázquez called on lawmakers to evaluate the legislation “very carefully,” stressing that retrying cases would open up wounds for crime victims.

“As a lifelong defender, for 23 years, of the victims of crime in Puerto Rico, I am in total disagreement with this bill,” she said during a press conference at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority’s Palo Seco plant in Toa Baja.

Regarding the Casellas case, the governor said it was not “final and firm” as it is in an appeals process. The Puerto Rico Justice Department did not object to the application of the U.S. ruling to his case.

“The court should evaluate his arguments, and with what was determined in the Ramos v. Louisiana case, the court will make its ruling,” she said. “It is different from what is stated in the bill because it is a pending case; it is not final and firm. So it is up to the court to decide.”

Vázquez said she does not believe the local courts are obligated to retroactively apply the landmark court decision.

“I will not contribute to the revictimization, the pain, the sadness, the desperation of the victims in Puerto Rico. I believe that in the Ramos v. Louisiana case [the U.S. court] made a decision on that point that we need not address in any way,” the governor said. “The defendants had their just and impartial trials, with adequate legal representation, and all of their rights were guaranteed. At this moment, what I can say is that I disagree with the bill, so I am calling [on lawmakers] to examine it very carefully. I will support the victims in this process.”

The bill is being evaluated by the House Judicial Committee, chaired by New Progressive Party Rep. María Milagros Charbonier.

During a committee hearing last week, Puerto Rico Justice Secretary Dennise Longo Quiñones reportedly called the Senate bill “draconian,” noting that it would “erase all the convictions that the [prosecution] proved beyond reasonable doubt with the highest standard of proof.”

Longo said that the retroactive application of the federal court ruling would lead to “at least 9,000 defendants having the ability to claim equal protection under the law.” With the prospective application of the ruling, just 133 in the appeals process would be able to invoke the new norm.

Legal Assistance Society Director Félix Vélez Alejandro had testified in favor of the measure, saying that it would “level the playing field.”

Rivera Schatz said last week that Longo, as well as Puerto Rico Attorney General Isaías Sánchez and Chief Prosecutor Arlene Gardón, had “advised” him on the legislation. He said attorneys from the private sector also participated in the discussion of the legislation, including InterAmerican Law School Dean Julio Fontanet Maldonado, as well as law Profs. Carlos Ramos and Andrés Córdova, and criminal attorneys Harry Padilla, Roberto Alonso, José Andreu Fuentes, Leonardo Aldridge, Pablo Colón, Edgar Vega Pabón, Rubén Falú, Gerardo Cruz and former Justice Secretary Antonio Sagardía.

In defense of his legislation last week, Rivera Schatz said the bill “exonerates no one,” adding that “we all are in solidarity with the victims of crime.

“If it is sad and regrettable to see a person lose a life or a family member lose a loved one due to crime…, it is as sad to see a person convicted without a just trial or accused without a balance of interests,” he said, stressing that justice must be applied equally to all, including victims.

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