SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A former elementary school teacher found guilty of lewd acts by a divided jury is the first person in Puerto Rico to be awarded a new trial after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that criminal trials require unanimous verdicts.
Friday’s ruling by Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court in favor of Tomás Torres Rivera gave many hope that hundreds of other defendants in the U.S. territory could receive a new trial. Some noted the quote with which Judge Anabelle Rodríguez began her ruling: “If a state cannot do it constitutionally, neither can Puerto Rico.”
Experts, however, said it wasn’t clear if Torres’ case would set a precedent because it was already pending in Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court before the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in late April.
“What remains to be seen are those cases with firm and final sentences,” said Wanda Valentín, president of a criminal law commission for Puerto Rico’s Bar Association.
Puerto Rico’s Constitution allows non-unanimous verdicts in criminal cases with a majority of at least nine jurors. But since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, hundreds of defense attorneys have sought new trials for their clients.
Earlier this week, Puerto Rico’s general prosecutor said he accepted the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling but worried about the toll that a new trial will have on the victims in the Torres case who will have to testify for a second time.
Torres remains in prison because the jury issued a unanimous verdict on the remaining eight of 11 charges, including child abuse.