Jury declines to impose death penalty in Puerto Rico murders

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - A man convicted of killing eight people in a crowded bar in Puerto Rico was spared the death penalty and sentenced to life in prison on Saturday in only the fifth case in which prosecutors have sought capital punishment on the island.

The jury failed to reach a unanimous decision on a death sentence for Alexis Candelario Santana, 41, who was convicted by the same panel earlier this month for the so-called La Tombola killings of October 2009.

The death penalty is banned under Puerto Rico’s constitution but applicable in certain federal cases. The island is U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.

Although there is strong opposition to the death penalty, crime has become a top public concern in Puerto Rico and the La Tombola killings were seen as particularly brazen and brutal. One of the people slain was a pregnant woman.

Candelario would have been the first person put to death in Puerto Rico since 1927 and the first under the federal death penalty statute.

He was convicted of being the mastermind and a participant of the shooting rampage, in which gunmen opened fire in the La Tombola bar in Toa Baja, a suburb west of San Juan.

Authorities said the shootings were retaliation against the bar owner, who had taken control of local drug sales when Candelario was in prison.

Candelario has been convicted for 10 other killings over the past decade in battles over the drug trade. Prosecutors say he has killed 22 people and attempted to kill another 19 in all.

His case marked the fifth time federal prosecutors sought and failed to get the death penalty imposed in Puerto Rico.

“I express my most profound respect to the jury for the decision it has taken. With it they have sustained the conviction of the Puerto Rican people that capital punishment should not be applied under any circumstances,” Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said in a statement.

The governor said he has asked U.S. Attorney Eric Holder not to certify any other federal case in Puerto Rico for the death penalty.

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Jackie Frank