A Death Penalty Case in Puerto Rico
Published: February 4, 2013
Puerto Rico abolished the death penalty in 1929 and, a generation later, made it unconstitutional. The island's Bill of Rights expressly decrees that "the death penalty shall not exist" there. But as a commonwealth of the United States, the island is subject to federal law, including the death penalty for many federal crimes.
This week, in a federal court there, the Justice Department is seeking the death penalty in the trial of Lashaun Casey, who is charged with the 2005 murder of an undercover narcotics officer during a drug deal.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. has recognized that pursuing capital punishment in jurisdictions that do not allow it in state prosecutions is a sensitive matter. In 2011, he addressed this issue in a policy memo saying that, in such instances, the federal interest must be "more substantial" than the interests of the state or local authority.
The Bush administration decided to seek the death penalty against Mr. Casey because it thought he executed the officer. But of the 489 federal capital cases since 1988, when the penalty was revived for federal crimes, most have involved multiple victims or extraordinary offenses like the Oklahoma City bombing or attacks on embassies.
Lawyers familiar with the case say the United States attorney's office in Puerto Rico asked Mr. Holder to seek a life sentence without parole because there is no clear proof Mr. Casey knew the victim was a law enforcement officer.
Mr. Holder, however, refused, presumably because he was unwilling to reopen the bureaucratic process that produced this decision. It is disappointing that he did not change his stance. Puerto Rico prohibits capital punishment. The facts of the case underscore just how arbitrary the death penalty is and why it should be abolished.
(A version of this editorial appeared in print on February 5, 2013, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: A Death Penalty Case in Puerto Rico.)