Wednesday, June 14, 2006

In Texas, the stonewall continues

From today's Houston Chronicle:

Conflict of interest
San Antonio district attorney should step aside and allow an independent probe of Cantu's execution.

When she was a judge more than a decade ago, Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed reviewed the appeal and then scheduled the execution of Ruben Cantu, whose guilt has been cast in doubt by an extensive Houston Chronicle investigation. In response, Reed re-opened the case but declined to recuse herself from the probe, even though she is an elected official who has a clear interest in its outcome.

Cantu was executed in 1993 for a murder he allegedly committed in San Antonio as a teen-ager. Since then a key eyewitness, Juan Moreno, has recanted his testimony, claiming he was pressured by police. Another person corroborates Cantu's claim that he was out of the city when the crime was committed. Cantu's co-defendant, David Garza, who has changed his account, now claims Cantu was innocent.

Last week a San Antonio judge ruled he had no authority to grant Garza's request that he replace Reed with a special prosecutor. During the hearing Reed testified as a witness and demonstrated why she should step down and allow an independent investigation.

Asked by Garza's lawyer, Keith Hampton, if investigators should examine her role in the case, Reed snapped, "I didn't do anything criminal in this case. Don't look at me like that, counsel." Reed referred to Moreno by saying, "I didn't sit in the witness chair and lie." Such statements indicate Reed has strong personal feelings about the Cantu case that might color the outcome of an investigation.

Attorney Hampton attempted to present a letter signed by 22 law professors and other legal experts who contend that Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit lawyers from participating in cases in which they had ruled as judges. One of them, University of Houston Law Center Professor Robert P. Schuwerk, told the Houston Chronicle that if Reed was exposed as a person who had made a fatal error as a judge, it would clearly conflict with her interests.

District attorneys are elected officials. If Reed runs again, she would have to appeal to a heavily Hispanic electorate. It clearly would not be to her advantage as a San Antonio politician to be known as the person who wrongly sent a Hispanic teenager to his execution. Even if she were able to conduct an impeccable and impartial re-examination of the Cantu case, the district attorney's history would create the appearance of conflict and taint the eventual findings.

Reed apparently is unable to apply a fairly straightforward principle of jurisprudence, avoidance of conflict of interest, to herself. Perhaps that is the most potent argument for her removal from the investigation.

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