Puerto Rican media take to Supreme Court over abuse case

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Andrea Ruiz has gone to court three times in a week to seek protection for her ex-boyfriend. She was denied each time and several weeks later, at the end of April, the 33-year-old clothing store manager was found beaten, strangled, stabbed and burned alive.

The incident outraged many in the United States and prompted journalists to demand recordings of these legal proceedings, which were dismissed by local courts. On Friday, they turned to the U.S. Supreme Court for help, arguing that the public has a right to know whether Puerto Rico’s court system is working or whether reform is needed.

“It is a fundamental right,” David Schulz, a Yale law school professor and lawyer in the case, told The Associated Press. “Without access, people cannot trust the courts to do the right thing. “

In its petition, the Association of Journalists of Puerto Rico asked the United States Supreme Court to hear its case against the government of the United States territory. They raise two questions: whether the automatic termination of all domestic violence proceedings and their recordings violates the First Amendment, and whether courts can take such action without first considering the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, of the press, of religion, of assembly and the right to petition the government.

Puerto Rico’s Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After Ruiz’s death, the department announced new measures to help prevent the recurrence of similar cases, including assigning a prosecutor to accompany a victim of domestic violence to certain hearings and organizing workshops for prosecutors.

Ruiz was killed months after the governor of Puerto Rico declared a state of emergency in late January for gender-based violence, with nearly 5,900 cases reported in 2019 and some 5,500 cases last year in the island of 3.3 million residents, with only a small percentage resulting in convictions.

Miguel Ocasio was charged with the murder of Ruiz shortly after the discovery of his body; a few months later, he committed suicide in prison on a $ 1 million bond.

Ruiz’s mother is backing the release of audio recordings of the legal proceedings involving her daughter, who must have been identified through dental records. Governor Pedro Pierluisi also supports their release.

But Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision that it was necessary to restrict access to all domestic violence proceedings, as this would prevent future victims of domestic violence from seeking court protection. .

“We all want answers, but in the quest for someone to answer, we cannot allow such a dire precedent,” the majority wrote.

Puerto Rico law states that it is up to a judge to decide who has access to special domestic violence courtrooms. In the Americas, the law varies from state to state.

Lawyer Rafelli González-Cotto, who helps represent the association of journalists, criticized the decision of the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico.

“It’s a lack of respect for the country and the journalists,” he said. “They have a right to know exactly what happened.”

He and other attorneys representing reporters partly argue that there is precedent in a case nearly two decades ago in which the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that there was a First Amendment law that permitted the public access to the files of domestic violence proceedings.

Lawyer Edgar Villanueva-Rivera said access to the information journalists seek is vital given what has been uncovered so far by local media, including prosecutors acknowledging that a local court was not unaware at the time Ruiz sought protection that her ex-boyfriend had previously been charged with attempted murder of a former partner, a case that was resolved under another diversion program.

Now that the petition has been filed, those whose Puerto Rican justice secretary and relatives of Ruiz and Ocasio can respond within 30 days, according to Stephen Stich, a Yale Law School professor also representing reporters. After that, it is up to the United States Supreme Court to decide whether to consider the case. The court accepts between 100 and 150 of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review each year, according to the federal government.

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