Why the Death Penalty Should Not Be Reinstated in Puerto Rico

By Isabela Tasende

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Photo by Jose Santiago on Unsplash

In 2019, twenty-two people lost their lives to violent crime within the first few weeks of the year in Puerto Rico. The devastation faced by the island after Hurricane María instilled deep fear and insecurity in its residents. A New York Times article written by Alejandría Rosa and Frances Robles discusses the state of the island post-Hurricane María, stating that “nearly 5,000 police officers have quit in the past few years and even a former police chief says she is afraid to leave her house after dark.” The authors go on to highlight the fact that “the island is still one of the most dangerous places in the world,” with Numbeo—a database of user-contributed data about cities and countries worldwide—classifying Puerto Rico as “highly unsafe” (Rosa and Robles). Overwhelmed by this fear, the people of Puerto Rico have become willing to try anything to reduce their insecurity. Some of the responses however have been incredibly radical in their disregard for Puerto Rico’s abolition of the death penalty and respect for human dignity.

A particularly concerning proposal to increase safety in Puerto Rico was put forth by Frank Worley-Lopez, a self-described conservative libertarian writer for the PanAm Post. Lopez writes about political, domestic, and safety issues on the island. His article “Puerto Rico Needs the Death Penalty, Not Superficial Moralism,” is a clear articulation of his perspective that insecurity and violence in Puerto Rico call for the reinstatement of the death penalty. Worley-Lopez claims that this will deter crime and that arguments in opposition to the death penalty are based on “superficial moralism” that is informed by the fact that our population is decidedly Roman Catholic. However, Worley-Lopez’s own claims—in favor of the death penalty—are not well supported. Additionally, his position in favor of the death penalty takes advantage of Puerto Rican’s growing fear for their safety, misleading desperate and vulnerable people. In this essay, I discuss the situation in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane María and challenge Worley-Lopez’s position that the death penalty is the best solution to the high crime rates, violence, and insecurity that Puerto Ricans face.

Worley-Lopez does not overstate the extent to which violent crime inflicts suffering on Puerto Ricans. For example, Gabrielle Gorder an author who writes for InSight Crime goes over the large spike in homicide cases in San Juan—Puerto Rico’s capital—between 2018 and 2019. It is recorded that, after Venezuela, Puerto Rico has the “second deadliest city” on the list of North, South, and Central American countries. Gorder also claims that with “53.5 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, [...] the island has become vulnerable to exploitation by gangs and transnational criminal organizations, which are using the island more and more as a stopover point for drug shipments.” Not only that, but crime was made significantly worse by Hurricane María, which impacted Puerto Ricans’ access to water, electricity, telecommunications services, and roads in addition to basic health services. While many of these services have since been restored, the hurricane’s effects on the island’s infrastructure had severe consequences for the safety of Puerto Ricans. Still, while Worley-Lopez is correct in recognizing the grave insecurity that Puerto Ricans face, he completely misses the historical and cultural significance that surrounds the issue of capital punishment in Puerto Rico.

For years, the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States Federal Government has been key to understanding the conflict surrounding the implementation of the death penalty. In 1953, a memorandum issued by the Secretary-General of the United States first officially recognized Puerto Rico’s status as a “commonwealth” (Gallien). Monique Marie Gallien, a lawyer from Brooklyn Law School, wrote “No Existira la Pena de Muerte: Does the United States Violate Regional Customary Law by Imposing the Death Penalty on Citizens of Puerto Rico” to defend those facing the ultimate punishment. She explains how, previous to the 1953 memorandum, Puerto Rico had already passed a law abolishing the death penalty in 1929. Puerto Rico’s stance against the death penalty conflicted with the stance of the United States federal government. Clashing ideas led to revisions of the Title III of the Omnibus Act, and in “The United States vs. Gerena,” the courts concluded that “all federal law does not automatically apply to Puerto Rico” (Gallien). The U.S. federal government has since attempted to pressure Puerto Rican judges into sentencing criminals with the death penalty. However, the U.S. federal government has not succeeded and Puerto Rican judges have used several arguments to explain their reluctance to give this sentence. For example, they have argued that this sentence should require additional evidence because of its “irrevocability,” and the fact that it challenges the idea that rehabilitation is the most important purpose of the justice system (Gallien). Moreover, judges have given tripartite arguments against the death penalty’s implementation. Initially, Puerto Rican judges claimed that since federal law does not automatically apply to the island, it cannot be mandated that they implement the death penalty (Gallien). Then, they added that since Puerto Rico outlawed the death penalty in its Constitution, and Puerto Rican values are incompatible with the death penalty, it should therefore not be legally pursued as punishment for any crime. In the end, all of these arguments reflect an underlying reluctance on behalf of the Puerto Rican people to embrace capital punishment.

Worley-Lopez fails to recognize this history in his claims about the “superficial moralism” of the death penalty debate in Puerto Rico. While it is true that many hold strong moral and ethical beliefs that capital punishment is an affront to human dignity, the issue is much more nuanced than that. For Puerto Ricans, the issue is seen both under the lens of human rights and through the lens of independence and self-determination from the United States. In an article by the journalist Abby Goodnough, the author articulates that Puerto Ricans believe that a concession on the issue of capital punishment would be like “pouring oil” our beautiful beaches. She discusses the fact that many Puerto Ricans opposed the death penalty, accusing the U.S. Justice Department of efforts to betray our “culture and constitution” (Goodnough). To reduce the issue of reinstating the death penalty to a “superficial moralism” is to disregard the years of resistance and struggle on behalf of the Puerto Rican people to assert our rights, culture, autonomy, and constitution.

Throughout his article, Worley-Lopez uses logical fallacies and exaggerations to make his case, which could result in misleading his readers. Thinking back to the devastation the island faced as a result of Hurricane María, and the way in which it upended the island’s established infrastructure, it’s not hard to see how some Puerto Ricans might be willing to grasp at whatever hope we could find. It’s also not hard to imagine that the impotence, fear, and violence Puerto Ricans experienced might lead some to seek retribution, and thus be more easily convinced by Worley-Lopez’s position. In fact, Worley-Lopez uses exaggeration to make caution for another human being’s life seem ridiculous. He claims that because “There will always be losses; there will always be mistakes.” This exaggeration demonstrates a failure to understand the complexities in what makes the death penalty different than carrying out other actions with the possibility of failure. Worley-Lopez gives examples like the fact that “we can be killed in a car, or our bathtub.” In reality, those examples present the logical fallacy of false equivalence. These two examples present completely different kinds of accidents or mistakes. The odds that someone will die from a car crash are nowhere near the odds of someone being mistakenly convicted of a crime they did not commit and dying from the lethal injections used for capital punishment. It is precisely because one can be certain of the consequences of a lethal injection—that is the end of a human life—that people argue the death penalty should be not be reinstated in Puerto Rico.

Another fallacy of false equivalence that Worley-Lopez uses to present his case in favor of reinstating the death penalty in Puerto Rico is the idea that since governments possess standing armies and armed police, it is therefore not coherent to state that they should have the right to use lethal injection against criminals. He claims that “If you believe that the death penalty is too much power for the state to have, then you must also consider support for armed police, the presence of a military of any kind, the right to keep and bear arms, and the right to self-defense” (Worley-Lopez). This creates a false equivalence, an either-or scenario, in which Lopez push his readers to believe that they cannot at the same time support police being armed and disagree with his claim that death penalty should be reinstituted on the island. Worley-Lopez’s argumentative tactics are problematic because he is deploying them with an audience of readers who are concerned for their safety and who feel like they cannot lose the support of the police in order to combat violent crime on the island.

Worley-Lopez’s fearmongering takes even more extreme language in the last sentences of his article, in which he claims that unless the death penalty is used: “The blood you fear will continue to flow in the streets of Puerto Rico.” Worley-Lopez seeks to establish an “us versus them” dichotomy by separating the blood of “good Puerto Ricans” from that of criminal elements, who are on the outside and therefore deserve to be executed. This way, Lopez dehumanizes those who could suffer from wrongful conviction and uses the desire for retribution that many Puerto Ricans already feel to push for his extreme position. In any case, the issue of punishment for criminal activity is much more nuanced than Worley-Lopez articulates and his use of loaded language to tell Puerto Ricans it will be their blood in the streets if the death penalty is not reinstated is not a reasonable conclusion to draw.

Finally, Worley-Lopez’s primary argument hinges on the idea that the death penalty is effective at deterring crime. Further he believes that if the death penalty were reinstated, it would induce fear in the criminals who have terrorized our island. He claims that the fact that “violent criminals have absolutely no fear of government authority” is amongst the three greatest drivers of violence, implying that this can be reduced through capital punishment. This position, however, is not empirically sound. Worley-Lopez’s argument is inconsistent with existing research that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on the levels of violent crime and homicide. It is understood by famous criminologists such as Cesare Beccaria, who wrote “An Essay on Crimes and Punishments,” that “it is not the intenseness of the pain that has the greatest effect on the mind, but its continuance. . . The death of a criminal is a terrible but momentary spectacle and therefore a less efficacious method of deterring others.” Beccaria makes the compelling argument that the death penalty is less effective at deterring crime than sustained punishments such as life sentences.

Practical arguments against the death penalty as a deterrent have been studied and analyzed by a range of criminologists. Most charitably, in 2019 the Death Penalty Information Center claimed that “the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that past studies have neither proven nor disproven a deterrent effect” (“Study: International Data”). This organization has been deemed unbiased and reliable, as it was even described by a pro-death penalty site as “the single most comprehensive authoritative internet resource on the death penalty” (“Death Penalty Links”). The Death Penalty Information Center conducted research on both a national and international scale. Internationally, they discovered that the murder rates in eleven countries that met the specific criteria for evaluation, ten of them “experienced a decline in murder rates in the decade following abolition” of the death penalty (“Study: International Data”). At a national level, the Death Penalty Information Center analysis of data from 1987 to 2015 found that there was “no evidence that the death penalty deters murder or protects police. Instead, the evidence shows that murder rates, [. . .] are consistently higher in death-penalty states than in states that have abolished the death penalty” (“New Podcast”). More specifically, the data showed that in non-death penalty states in the U.S. murder rates were 1.39 times lower and that states who still implemented capital punishment accounted for “12 out of the 16 states with the highest murder rates” (“New Podcast”). All of this goes to show that even though Worley-Lopez frames the issue in a way that assumes the death penalty will cause an end to “the deaths of hundreds of people each year,” in reality, we cannot make this assumption. Homicides are often committed in a manner that does not reflect calculation on the part of the criminal; often homicides are committed under the influence of substances, which makes it so that the fear of death or punishment is not something on the criminal’s mind. Moreover, even those who do plan a crime beforehand may rationalize that they can get away with it unscathed. Worley-Lopez’s argument to reinstate the death penalty in Puerto Rico overlooks all existing data finding no causal relationship in its effectiveness at reducing crime.

In the end, it is clear that Worley-Lopez understands the fear and insecurity that Puerto Ricans experience every single day. However, in attempting to provide a solution to this issue, he omits to mention the historical significance of Puerto Rico’s fight for sovereignty and cultural independence. Additionally, he employs argumentative tactics that mislead his readers into thinking the issue is black and white and inducing more fear into an already frightened population. Finally, Worley-Lopez’s main argument hinges on the idea that the reinstatement of capital punishment in Puerto Rico would result in a significant reduction in crime. However, researchers have so far not found that the death penalty results in increased safety or reductions in violent crime. Worley-Lopez’s position, despite having roots in the legitimate concern regarding increased crime in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María, should not result in a reinstatement of the death penalty.

Still, I recognize that I have not put forth a solution that is as neat and tidy as Worley-Lopez’s, and that this might leave Puerto Ricans feeling hopeless. However, this is precisely because no easy solution exists. The issues of crime and insecurity have their origins in systemic factors that require comprehensive solutions. Harold J. Toro, an assistant professor at Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, writes about many of the systemic challenges to crime and punishment in his article “Lessons from Puerto Rico: Inter-country Relationships, Crises, and Human Thriving.” Toro claims that “addressing these issues might require a broad reconceptualization of domestic social policy,” seeking integral human development and flourishing, as opposed to “quick,” simple solutions such as reinstating capital punishment (Toro). Therefore, as we all work to try to solve the urgent problem of violent crime and felt insecurity in Puerto Rico, let us not put our faith in Worley-Lopez’s proposal. While appealing for its simplicity, Worley-Lopez’s solution to reinstate the death penalty offers false hope to our already-struggling population. The death penalty is not a viable option for Puerto Rico because reinstating it ignores our constitution in addition to our efforts to achieve political and cultural sovereignty from the U.S. federal government. Worley-Lopez’s use of loaded language and fallacious reasoning—to implant fear in the minds of Puerto Ricans—is as problematic as his unfounded assumption that capital punishment serves as a deterrent to crime. All of us who care about Puerto Rico cannot and should not embrace Frank Worley-Lopez’s argument to reinstate the death penalty.