Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Death-penalty case inspires protest in Puerto Rico

Death-penalty case inspires protest in Puerto Rico

Jeannette Rivera-Lyles | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted December 12, 2006
Few people in Central Florida may have heard of Angel Nieves Diaz or know that he's scheduled to be executed Wednesday at a Florida prison.

But family members in Orange and Osceola counties have been working for months to save his life, and they have rallied the support of thousands in his native Puerto Rico.

In fact, the island's governor, Anibal Acevedo Vila, is among those who have petitioned Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for the commutation of his death sentence, citing irregularities in the judicial process and a cultural tradition that rejects capital punishment.

"The people of Puerto Rico have a longstanding, unwavering and broadly accepted commitment against the death penalty for moral, social and religious reasons," Acevedo Vila said in his letter to Bush two weeks ago. "We believe that the death penalty does not deter crime and places innocent people at risk of execution."

Puerto Ricans have long opposed the death penalty, which the commonwealth abolished in 1929. Although federal law applies to the island, because of its status, a Puerto Rican jury has never voted to execute anyone found guilty of a federal capital crime.

Bush turned down Acevedo Vila's petition.

Nieves, 55, was convicted in 1984 for the murder of Joseph Nagy, a South Florida nightclub manager, during a robbery five years earlier. He has been held on death row at Florida State Prison in Starke.

Many of Nieves' extended family, including his legal proxy and spokeswoman, cousin Maggie Otero Diaz, live in east Orange and Osceola counties.

Since March, when Bush signed the execution order, Otero Diaz's home off Econlockhatchee Trail has become the family's headquarters in a desperate race against the clock to save Nieves' life.

From there, they have worked the phones, organized fundraisers and cranked out letters seeking support.

Otero Diaz said she has received unlimited support from many at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church who have donated money, cooked meals and prayed with her.

"We never thought we would have this many people helping us," said Sol Otero, Nieves' niece.

The family also has been successful in getting the attention of Amnesty International and the Catholic Bishops of Florida, as well as local Spanish media.

Their efforts to stop the execution have been fruitless. All legal maneuvers have failed, including two motions that were denied Monday by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta seeking a stay of execution and a request to file another appeal.

Nieves' state-paid attorney, Suzanne Myers Keffer, said Monday that her client still had appeals pending with the U.S. Supreme Court, The Associated Press reported. Myers Keffer could not be reached Monday by the Orlando Sentinel.

Nieves has come to terms with his impending execution, but his emotions are a roller coaster, Otero Diaz said.

"He's at peace with God. But he's desperate. Although his desperation has more to do with what is happening to us than to him," Otero Diaz said.

"He says a great injustice was committed, and not just against him, but against his family that has had to go through this excruciating process for over 20 years now."

Nieves' family, his attorney and groups such as the island-based Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty say Nieves was allowed to defend himself even though he didn't speak English.

He was given an interpreter, but there are discrepancies in the quality and consistency of the translation, they say.

His supporters contend that the only physical evidence linking him to the murder scene is a fingerprint on a matchbox. The witness who identified him as the triggerman has since recanted his testimony.

But the Florida Supreme Court rejected these arguments, saying they already had been examined by a lower court.

Nieves had a criminal record in Puerto Rico, where he had escaped from prison before arriving in Florida.

On the island, there is outrage about the death sentence, a frequent topic on local news. The Puerto Rican media has carried daily reports on Nieves' case.

"This is a farce, a miscarriage of justice," said Osvaldo Burgos, a member of the Puerto Rican Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which is made up of the island's main religious and civic groups.

"The record shows he clearly stated that he did not know the law nor the process. How could he possibly be allowed to defend himself in a language he did not speak?"

Nieves' family members in Central Florida have begun to make funeral arrangements. If he is executed, his body will be brought to Funeraria Porta Coeli in Kissimmee for a wake. The burial will be in Puerto Rico.

Jeannette Rivera-Lyles can be reached at jrivera@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5471.

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