The U.S. Justice Department is closely monitoring the fallout from an apparent anti-gay killing in Puerto Rico in an incident that could become the first prosecuted case under the new federal hate crimes law, according to a department official.
Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division, told reporters Dec. 17 that federal officials are keeping a close eye on the case.
“That case is being investigated and prosecuted right now by the state of Puerto Rico as both a murder, and they do have a hate crimes law in Puerto Rico, so we’re closely monitoring that case, as we do all cases, and we continue to follow that case very closely,” he said.
Juan Martinez Matos, 26, is accused of killing Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado, who was gay. The dismembered body of the 19-year-old college student was found last month along a road in the town of Cayey, according to the Associated Press.
The Associated Press quoted the local prosecutor in the case as saying Martinez met Lopez while looking for women in an area known for prostitution. The suspect reportedly said the victim was dressed as a woman and that he stabbed Lopez after discovering he was male.
Martinez was charged with first-degree murder and weapons violations, and was jailed on a $4 million bond, according to the Associated Press.
The next hearing in the case is set for Jan. 13. The defense has said Martinez is mentally unfit to stand trial. A state psychiatrist is evaluating the defendant, and the court will decide Jan. 13 whether he’s mentally competent.
Should federal officials decide to prosecute the killing as a hate crime, it would be the first such prosecution under the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by President Obama into law in October.
Asked what would factor into federal officials’ decision to prosecute the killing under the new law, Perez recalled recent news from Shenandoah, Pa., regarding an allegedly bias-motivated fatal beating of Luis Ramirez, a Latino man. Two people — Derrick Donchak and Brandon Piekarsky — were indicted under a previously enacted federal hate crimes statute.
“We’re monitoring [the Puerto Rico case], just as we monitor the prosecution in the Shenandoah case,” he said. “We kept a very close eye on it, and when the case ended, we conducted our own private independent investigation, and you saw the fruits of it earlier this week.”
Also closely monitoring the case is the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Pedro Juliano Serrano, spokesperson for the organization and founder of Puerto Rico Para Tod@s, said his organization is calling for local and federal authorities to consider the killing as a hate crime.
“We do think it is a hate crime and we’re asking the authorities to investigate it as a hate crime,” he said. “We called on the local authorities to investigate it and we’re certainly satisfied that the federal authorities are monitoring the local investigation, and might be involved, if possible.”
The U.S. attorney involved with the case, Rosa Emilia Rodriquez, reportedly told Puerto Rican media last week that her office is monitoring the case and will file paperwork with federal authorities if the defendant is not convicted of a hate crime. Still, El Nuevo Dia, a Puetro Rican newspaper, quoted Rodriguez as saying she believes the case is moving ahead properly.
Puerto Rico has had a local hate crimes statute since 2002, but Serrano said he’s skeptical that Martinez would be prosecuted under this law because no conviction has taken place under this statute.
“In the seven years that the hate crimes has been in place in Puerto Rico, we’ve had more than 20 killings that have clearly had signs of being probably hate crimes,” Serrano said. “None of them have been classified as such.”
Serrano said the lack of prosecutions under the Puerto Rico hate crimes statute is what’s prompting activists to ask the federal government to keep an eye on the case.
“That’s why we are calling on the authorities to keep monitoring the situation because if the local authorities again fail to process this as a hate crime with their statute, we’re hoping that the federal authorities can come in and assume jurisdiction,” he said.
Serrano said he believes the incident was a hate crime because Martinez reportedly confessed to killing Lopez out of hatred for gays.
“He said that supposedly … he had been raped during a stint in prison because he was convicted of domestic violence, and because he was raped, he hated gays,” Serrano said.
The brutal violence of the crime, Serrano said, also indicates that it was bias-motivated. He noted that Lopez’ body was dismembered, decapitated and burned and that it’s unclear whether the victim was in fact dressed in women’s clothes because of the condition in which the body was found.
Attention to the case in Puerto Rico comes as the Justice Department is ramping up efforts to comply with the newly enacted hate crimes statute. Perez told reporters his office is busy training federal and local authorities to make the law fully effective.
“We have an implementation plan put in place that involves training the assistant United States attorneys, training the state and local authorities and local prosecutors, working with our community partners to train them, and also to work on prevention initiatives,” he said.