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august 16, 2012 • 03:17 PM

Puerto Ricans to vote on limiting right to bail

A photo of two handcuffed youths, their middle fingers raised in defiance as they are led out of a court hearing, stares down from a highway billboard in San Juan with the warning: "If you don't vote, they win."

The pair are accused in the killing of another teen at a party and have become poster boys for a campaign to limit the right to bail in Puerto Rico.

Voters in the U.S. territory will go to the polls on Sunday to consider two Constitutional amendments. One would shrink the legislature to 56 seats from 78 and the other would grant local judges the ability to deny bail to suspects accused of certain violent crimes.

Proponents say the measures will cut government spending and reduce the crime rate. Opponents say they would diminish the influence of minority political parties, violate civil rights and unfairly affect the poor.

A poll published this week by El Nuevo Dia, Puerto Rico's largest newspaper, indicates that a majority of Puerto Ricans, fed up with the island's high crime rate and a legislature seen as out of touch with tough economic reality, are ready to approve both measures by wide margins.

The two teenagers on the billboard, 17-year-old Jan Carlos Lopez Carrasquillo and 18-year-old Heriberto Martinez Leon, are accused in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Jean Carlos Alvarado Martínez during a house party in June in an upscale suburb in the Cidra, west of San Juan.

Lopez Carraquillo is accused of pulling the trigger, allegedly because he did not like the look the victim gave someone. He is charged with first-degree murder. Martinez Leon is accused of helping Lopez Carraquillo flee and is charged with being an accessory to the crime.

Bond was set at $3 million for Lopez Carrasquillo and $100,000 for Martinez Leon, but neither could raise the money and both remained jailed.

However, Puerto Rico's Constitution contains an absolute right to bail, and when bail is set high, defendants routinely ask for reconsideration - requests that are often transferred to other judges and then granted.

The referendums are unique in that they do not cut along well-worn political divisions in Puerto Rico, where the major parties are defined by their support for pursuing U.S. statehood or remaining a self-governing U.S. commonwealth.

Governor Luis Fortuno, a pro-statehood Republican and president of the New Progressive Party and his principal opponent in November's gubernatorial election, Senator Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a pro-commonwealth Democrat and president of the Popular Democratic Party, both support the amendments.

The NPP has used the photo of the defendants in its campaign supporting the bail-limiting amendment.

Former Police Superintendent Pedro Toledo, who served under both NPP and PDP administrations, said restricting bail would increase the prosecution rate for murders, which currently is about 30 percent, because many witnesses fear being killed by suspects who are out on bail.

"Having the accused remain in jail will take away the pressure on a witness and their family," Toledo told a news conference with other judges who support the amendment.

PDP Senator Eduardo Bhatia said the bail limits would be unfairly applied against poor defendants.

The amendment would give judges discretion to deny bail when someone is accused of murder "with premeditation, deliberation or stalking" or in killings committed during home robberies, sexual assaults or kidnappings. Judges could also deny bail for defendants accused of firing guns from motor vehicles or into crowded places or killing law enforcement officers.

Puerto Rico Independence Party officials have attacked the proposal to reduce the legislature from 78 seats to 56 seats. They complain that candidates would need around 300,000 votes to win a seat, making it more difficult for the PIP and other minority parties to win representation in the legislature.

(Editing by Jane Sutton and David Brunnstrom)

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