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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Inmate accused of killing woman was not physically evaluated by panel that OK’d his release

Celia Cosme, the director of the DCR diversion program, took the 5th at a hearing in the Puerto Rico Senate on Thursday.

By The Star Staff

At a public hearing in the island Senate on Thursday, Physician Correctional President Dr. Raúl Villalobos revealed that the panel of doctors who recommended the release of convicted murderer Hermes Ávila Vázquez did not physically evaluate him in 2022.

Furthermore, he pointed out that the panel did not know of the crimes committed by Ávila Vázquez in order to avoid bias in his diagnosis.

Physician Correctional is the contracting company that provides medical services for the island Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR).

The revelations arise in the context of the investigation into the conditional release of Ávila Vázquez, who is accused of killing Ivette Joan Meléndez Vega, 56, in Manatí last month, a year after being released.

“It is not a formality,” Villalobos said.

“Does the medical panel see him, does it see the patient or not?” Sen. José Vargas Vidot asked.

“No, no, in this case it didn’t see him,” Villalobos responded.

“So in this case it [the panel] didn’t see him,” Vargas Vidot insisted.

“I could see him if necessary,” the Physician Correctional president responded.

“Didn’t you see him?” Vargas Vidot insisted.

“It isn’t so usual to see [the patient]; the initial evaluating doctor sees him and what that medical panel sees is the determination of that initial evaluating specialist doctor,” Villalobos said.

In February 2022, a panel of general practitioners and family doctors determined that Ávila Vázquez did not suffer from a terminal illness with a prognosis of six months to live, but rather fit into the category of “severe disabling and disabling condition in an advanced state or limiting physiological condition.”

The decision was based on a physical examination performed on Aug. 9, 2021 by a single Physician Correctional doctor, who had already evaluated Ávila Vázquez in 2015 when he unsuccessfully requested an initial pass.

State Insurance Fund Corporation (CFSE) President Noé Marcano noted that it was not until May 3 of this year they received a letter from Physician Correctional, dated April 23, requesting Ávila Vázquez’s file.

According to the 2011 DCR Reorganization Plan, the pass was granted for “health with a short life prognosis and limiting physiological conditions.” However, Regulation 9242, signed in 2020 by the then-DCR secretary, Eduardo Rivera Juanatey, changed the letter “y” to “o”, establishing that it must comply with “having a life prognosis of less than six months or limiting physiological disabling conditions.”

In 2023, current DCR Secretary Ana Escobar Pabón adjusted those provisions by approving the Regulation for the Comprehensive Community Reintegration Program 9488, maintaining the two options and not necessarily as established by Law 25 of 1992, which indicates that the pass must be due to a “terminal” condition.

When asked by Sen. Rafael Bernabe about whether the change in regulations was the criterion for medically authorizing the release of Ávila Vázquez into the free community, Villalobos said: “The diagnosis was fundamentally the same, but there was an evolution of the patient, where his physiological functions were compromised and that doctor who evaluated that patient on August 9, 2021 believed that now in light of regulations that had been approved the previous year [the release] could be recommended.”

Later on Thursday when the hearing resumed, the director of the DCR diversion program, Celia Cosme, availed herself of her 5th Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

“I invoke my right not to incriminate myself in accordance with the federal Constitution and the state Constitution,” Cosme repeated to each question asked by Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago.

Dalmau Santiago asked a series of questions about Cosme’s workplace and the steps she took to authorize the departure of Ávila Vázquez. The official replied by repeating the same answer.

Attorney Víctor Aníbal Castro Pérez asked the Senate why they did not accept his recommendation to move the public hearing to next Tuesday, since Cosme, whom he represents, has to appear on Friday to testify before the Department of Justice.

Dalmau Santiago then summoned the official to appear next Tuesday, May 21, at 10 a.m. for the continuation of the public hearing.

It was mentioned that she could avail herself of the 5th Amendment again, if necessary.

“This could have been avoided,” her lawyer said.

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