Puerto Rico jury spares killer from death penalty

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Associated Press

Posted on March 23, 2013 at 8:33 PM

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A Puerto Rico man previously convicted of masterminding one of the island's biggest mass shootings was spared the death penalty on Saturday.

The sentencing deliberations for 41-year-old Alexis Candelario Santana ended with a hung jury, meaning he will serve life in prison. He had been found guilty earlier this month in the deaths of eight people and an 8-month-old fetus following an October 2009 bar shooting that also injured more than 20 others.

It is the fifth time a Puerto Rican jury has rejected a federal death penalty case.

Candelario raised both hands in the air upon hearing the verdict, joining thousands of people across the island who celebrated as well, noting that the U.S. territory's constitution prohibits capital punishment. Candelario, however, was being tried in federal court, which allows for the death penalty.

Among those celebrating was Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, who said he asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Friday to cease pursuing death penalty cases in Puerto Rico.

"Our petition conforms to the will of the people of Puerto Rico, as expressed in our Constitution, and should not be construed in any way as a claim of impunity for those who have committed heinous crimes," Garcia said. "We strongly believe they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law."

U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodriguez said she respected the jury's decision and added that capital punishment is not mandatory, but rather an option for juries to consider.

"This is to help Puerto Rico," she said, referring to the island's struggle with crime. "I don't have any other agenda here."

Yanet Maysonet, who was among those injured in the 2009 bar shooting, told reporters she was satisfied with the verdict.

"The best punishment is that he spend his life dying in prison," she said. "God is the one who creates life and the one who takes life away."

Felix Jose Garcia Hidalgo told WAPA radio station that he opposed the death penalty, "but this man killed to bring pain, tears and suffering to the relatives of those he killed."

The verdict comes a day after Puerto Rico's Senate approved a proposal that aims to prohibit the U.S. government from applying the death penalty in Puerto Rico.

"The federal government, who for many years has been intent on killing a Puerto Rican to demonstrate it can do so, is morally obligated to respect the values of our nation," said Sen. Ramon Luis Nieves, the bill's co-author.

Puerto Rico banned the death penalty in 1929, two years after a farmworker was hanged for beheading his boss with a machete. The island reaffirmed its stance after approving its first constitution in 1952, stating the death penalty is a human rights violation.

As the seven women and five men on the jury began to deliberate on Friday, a government official with the Women Affairs Department made a rare public statement in favor of the death penalty. Shortly afterward, several legislators and nonprofit organizations called for her resignation, accusing her of being disloyal to the island's constitution.

The jury deliberated nearly two days before issuing a verdict.

The 2009 shooting occurred six months after Candelario had been released from prison after serving six years of an unrelated 12-year murder sentence.

Federal agents arrested Candelario in the U.S. Virgin Islands three months after the bar shooting. He was aboard a 30-foot boat that had just entered a marina in St. Thomas.

Candelario previously was found guilty of another 12 murders by a local jury, as well as convicted on roughly 60 felonies, according to court documents.

"The list of convictions and brushes with the criminal justice system is the longest and most impressive we have seen in twenty-seven years on the bench," noted U.S. District Court Judge Jose Antonio Fuste.

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