Saturday, January 19, 2008

NCADP 2008: Lighting the Torch Award

We continue our series of NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream awardees. The highlight of the conference is tonight, with a reception and book-signing by Mike Farrell, star of M*A*S*H and so many other programs. Following that is our awards banquet.

Today we bring you the NCADP 2008 Lighting the Torch Award, presented to the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico for their resolute opposition to the death penalty.

Please check back in tomorrow as we will bring you our final 2008 awardee.

The People of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico
Lighting the Torch Award

Puerto Rico is not a likely candidate to be on the front lines of the struggle against the death penalty. After all, the Commonwealth first abolished the death penalty in 1929, and then followed that up by drafting a Constitution in 1952 that specifically banned the use of capital punishment – a document that was approved by the U.S. Congress.

But the Bush Administration had other plans.

Just as it has pursued death sentences in the jurisdictions that do not have the death penalty -- 13 states and Washington D.C. – the U.S. Justice Department is relying on federal statutes to aggressively pursue death sentences in Puerto Rico. Five times it has sought death sentences in the Commonwealth; five times, jurors have refused to comply. Death sentences currently are being sought in an additional three cases, and as many as 11 people awaiting trial are at risk of having their cases certified as capital punishment cases.

Still, Puerto Ricans have remained strong and have begun to aggressively organize. The Puerto Rico Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which plans to send almost a dozen delegates to NCADP 2008: Reaching for the Dream in San Jose, now consists of 42different groups and more than 400 individuals. The group’s coalition approach to building strength has brought in the ACLU, the Puerto Rico Bar Association, the island’s Civil Rights Commission, students from across the Commonwealth and religious leaders across the spectrum.

Because of the Commonwealth’s determination to resists the federal government’s efforts to impose the death penalty against its will, NCADP has selected the people of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as the joint recipient of this year’s Lighting the Torch award.

“We’re very excited about the Lighting the Torch Award and it is important for us to be in San Jose,” explains Osvaldo Burgos, an attorney and co-chair of the Puerto Rico Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

Burgos notes that Puerto Rico is hardly alone in its struggle against federal efforts to impose the death penalty against the Commonwealth’s wishes. After all, states from Vermont to Michigan to Iowa to North Dakota all face similar challenges – each of these states has now seen federal death sentences handed down even though no state death penalty statutes exist. And the federal government has tried twice, unsuccessfully, to pursue death sentences in Washington, D.C., a jurisdiction also without a death penalty statute of its own.

“We want to convince people there are others facing this issue and others in the same situation we are in,” Burgos says. “We have a lot to learn from them and a lot to teach them.”

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