Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Texas executed an innocent man.

An article out today says that Texas apparenly executed an innocent man in 1994.

Ruben Cantu was 17 in 1984 when he was charged with capital murder in the fatal shooting of a man during an attempted robbery in San Antonio. The victim was shot nine times with a rifle before the gunman unloaded more rounds into the only eyewitness.

The eyewitness, Juan Moreno, told the Chronicle that it wasn't Cantu who shot him. Moreno said he identified Cantu as the killer during his 1985 trial because he felt pressured and was afraid of authorities....

Meanwhile, Cantu's co-defendant, David Garza, recently signed a sworn affidavit saying he allowed his friend to be accused, even though Cantu wasn't with him the night of the killing.

Cantu was executed at age 26. He had long professed his innocence.

"Part of me died when he died," said Garza, who was 15 at the time of the murder. "You've got a 17-year-old who went to his grave for something he did not do. Texas murdered an innocent person."

Miriam Ward, forewoman of the jury that convicted Cantu, said the panel's decision was the best they could do based on the information presented during the trial.

"With a little extra work, a little extra effort, maybe we'd have gotten the right information," Ward said. "The bottom line is, an innocent person was put to death for it. We all have our finger in that."

Sam D. Millsap Jr., then the Bexar County district attorney who decided to charge Cantu with capital murder, told the newspaper he never should have sought the death penalty in a case based on testimony from an eyewitness who identified a suspect only after police showed him Cantu's photo three separate times.

Now, this is not the first time that there is evidence of the execution of an innocent man in the United States. Joseph O'Dell was executed by the state of Virginia for the rape and murder of a woman, even though subsequently, DNA taken from semen in the woman was identified as not being from O'Dell, and the only witness against him, a jailhouse snitched named Steven Tucker, recanted his testimony and signed a sworn affidavit saying that he had made up the whole story of O'Dell's 'confession.' O'Dell, who is buried in Italy as a sort of an international memorial against the death penalty, again stated for the record his innocence immediately before being executed.

Additionally, there is a long list of people who have been sent to death row and later exhonerated. The state of Illinois exhonerated (as opposed to overturned on a technicality) thirteen men, including Anthony Porter, who was at one time only two hours away from execution, who was set free after a class of Northwestern University Law students found and obtained a confession from the real murderer. Others were exhonerated because of DNA or other exculpatory evidence. Since the total population of death row in that state was around 250, this represented about five percent of all death sentences in Illinois (prompting that state's governor to place a moratorium on executions in 2001). Of course, Illinois is the home to a very active group of legal experts who have thorougly examined every case, which other states do not have.

Now, I oppose the death penalty, but not for the same reasons as many death penalty opponents. If it was handled in a foolproof manner, and if it was decided in a way that one's income (and therefore ability to hire a better lawyer) played no part in it, I wouldn't have a problem with it conceptually.

However, That is not the case. We have certainly seen that it is sometimes (and all too often, IMO) given falsely.

Further, in our system of justice, we have seen that a person's ability to pay for better lawyers often has more to do with whether they are found guilty of a crime than the evidence does (and while there are some very fine and dedicated public defenders, it is also true that lawyers who are incompetent, lazy or just plain chronic losers and don't find work at law firms, often end up as public defenders because it is the only job they can get). On one extreme, you have the O.J. Simpsons, the Robert Blakes and the Michael Jacksons, who have a ton of money, and even if convicted won't get the death penalty or probably much jail time at all. On the other extreme, you have destitute people, who get a lawyer not of their choosing, and often an overworked and underpaid public defender. So, not surprisingly, a disproportionate share of death sentences go to poor people. And, not surprisingly, it turns out that some of them are innocent. As we have seen in all too many cases, evidence is withheld, people are coerced (as happened with the eyewitness in this case), and people who have a financial incentive to do so, do whatever it takes to win, even if it is to break the rules. Now, I'm not suggesting that defense attorneys don't do the same thing-- they certainly do, nor that the majority of people on death row shouldn't be there-- in most cases, they are guilty as sin. But I am suggesting that not ALL of those there are guilty, and that there is now evidence that the number of innocents is uncomfortably high.

The criminal justice system is in need of a serious overhaul. And faulty as it is, I don't consider it to be good enough to decide whether to kill people. So, a much better sentence in such a faulty system would be life without parole-- which could then be revoked much more easily if exculpatory evidence comes forward.


Chuck said...

"Meanwhile, Cantu's co-defendant, David Garza, recently signed a sworn affidavit saying he allowed his friend to be accused, even though Cantu wasn't with him the night of the killing."

Sounds like David Garza committed murder twice then.

Your point about the (many times) misrepresentation of the poor is well taken and a significant fact. And it certainly isn't limited to capital crimes.

Thanks for this entry Eli. Thanks for all of your entries. I hope a lot of people read this one.

Unknown said...

I'm glad so many bloggers are picking up on the Ruben Cantu story. This is the strongest evidence we have in the modern era of an innocent person executed.

David Elliot
Abolish the Death Penalty

dorsano said...

Those who advocate for the death penalty believe that the cost of accidently killing an inocent person is less than the cost of leaving the guilty undeterred and unpunished.

It's a matter of values and civility it seems.

shrimplate said...

Mario Cuomo referred to life without parole as "death by incarceration," a kind of the death penaly that can be rescinded if necessary.

Eli Blake said...


Turn that around. Would they also say that it would be better for a murderer to kill someone, than for the same person (who would otherwise be the murderer) to allow people to 'walk all over them?'

There is in fact a happy medium. If we have life without parole, then we won't kill an innocent person, but the guilty are certainly 'deterred and punished.'

You see, the fallacy with the argument you cite is that they are assuming that the death penalty (which has no statistically supported deterrent effect) is the only form of deterrence and punishment available. But the choice is not between death and letting them walk free, but rather between incarceration which ends with natural death or incarceration which ends with state-sponsored killing.

dorsano said...

You see, the fallacy with the argument you cite is that they are assuming that the death penalty ..

I agree - I don't accept the premise that the death penalty is any more a deterrent than say lifetime incarceration.

I do think that just like an individual, the state is called to defend itself when faced with extinction.

Problems with the criminal justice system aside, it's conceivable that there are some crimes that threaten the rule of law or threaten a break down in civil order and require the death penalty - killing a cop might be one - an act of terrorism might be another - if the proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Civil War is probably the ultimate exercise of the state killing to preserve its existence.

The same could be said of the human race. It is concievable that some crimes, such as genocide, so threaten our collective civilizations that they also demand the death penalty.

That's about the only argument that I buy in favor of killing as a form of rendering justice.

Anything smacking of vengence or "setting things right" is not justice.