by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
The killer of Gay Puerto Rican teen Jorge Steven Lopez Mercado has entered a guilty plea and has been sentenced for the crime.
Juan Jose Martinez Matos confessed to the murder during a hearing in Caguas on Wednesday, May 12. He had been scheduled to go on trial for killing Lopez on Monday, May 17.
Martinez told the court he understood the consequences of his actions, and Judge Miriam Camila Jusino immediately sentenced him to 99 years in prison.
Lopez was stabbed to death, decapitated, dismembered, and his body was partially burned in a gruesome murder in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on November 12 last year.
Martinez was arrested several days later and reportedly told police that he had picked up Lopez thinking he was a female prostitute, and became enraged when he realized his mistake.
Primera Hora newspaper reported that Lopez's parents, Myriam Mercado and Jorge Lopez, hugged prosecutor Yaritza Carrasquillo after the hearing.
Mercado told the newspaper that the killer's confession was bittersweet for her and her family.
"We are able to find a bit of peace in this aspect, but it still is not going to return Steven," she told reporters. "But at least there is justice in Puerto Rico."
Jorge Lopez repeated his previous statements of forgiveness for the killer.
"I want to send a message to Juan [Martinez] and tell him there is hope in Christ," said Lopez with tears in his eyes. "The Lord has forgiveness for him, irregardless of what has happened. God has a plan for him if he opens his heart to Christ. God will forgive him also."
The brutality of the crime made international headlines, and brought in outside intervention.
In one of the first applications of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, the FBI monitored the case and was prepared to intervene if local authorities failed to convict Martinez.
Puerto Rico has hate crime legislation on the books, but it has never been used.
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Illinois state Sen. Iris Martinez, who chairs the Democratic National Committee's Hispanic Caucus, traveled to Puerto Rico and met with local officials and LGBT activists in January.
Their delegation also challenged Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuño for not publicly condemning the teenager's murder.
Pedro Julio Serrano of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), who was in Caguas when Martinez confessed to Lopez's murder, told reporters there was not a dry eye in the courtroom.
The NGLTF has an office in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was active in urging local officials to investigate and prosecute the case.
Serrano added that Lopez's family remains a source of inspiration for him and other LGBT Puerto Ricans.
"The family is sending a powerful message to the world of the love that conquers hate," he said.
In a written statement circulated by NGLTF, Serrano stressed that the organization's work against hate crimes will continue.
"This was a brutal crime, and today's developments have been very emotional for Jorge Steven's family and friends, as well as to the entire Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community in Puerto Rico. While the guilty plea and sentencing bring some closure, these wounds will never heal for those who knew and loved Jorge Steven.
"Yet, despite how heart-wrenching this has all been, Jorge Steven's family has been so loving and strong; they have been and continue to be a symbol of love conquering hate. This has inspired me and so many others in our work to keep this from happening again."
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