Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Yes. We're blogging on Ruben Cantu again

And we're going to keep blogging on Ruben Cantu until someone down in Texas gets it right.

And by "someone," we do not mean Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed, who, having signed the order authorizing Cantu's [wrongful] execution, is singularly unqualified to lead the investigation into what terrible things went wrong.

For those who have just stumbled across this blog and are unfamilar with the Cantu case, let us recap: Last year the Houston Chronicle published a two-part investigative series strongly suggesting that Ruben Cantu was innocent of the crime for which he was tried, convicted, sentenced to death and executed. You can read part one of the series here and part two here.

After the story ran, Reed announced that she would conduct an investigation into Cantu's execution. Many legal observers said, well, an investigation would be a Good Thing (to use the legal term) but why should it be conducted by the very person who once signed Cantu's death warrant? One thing led to another, and eventually the pro-prosecutor Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was asked to step in, which it, of course, refused to do. (You can read about this little controversy here.)

Many Texas newspapers, waking up to the fact that Texas in recent years has carried out not one, not two but three executions of innocent people, protested loudly. This week, the conservative Dallas Morning News joined the fray:

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals could have struck a blow for justice
this week in a smarmy death case. Instead, the state's highest criminal court
sat on its hands, essentially blessing Bexar County DistrictAttorney Susan
Reed's investigation of her own office. Worse, in her previous job as a judge,
she personally set the execution date for the man in question, Ruben Cantu. He
was put to death in 1993 for a robbery-murder that has come into question
because of witnesses' changed accounts. Is a disinterested inquiry really too
much to ask for?

Yes, apparently. But we'll keep blogging.

Update: I just saw that the Houston Chronicle this week editorialized on this as well. Here's what they had to say:

Court's decision to leave a wrongful execution inquiry with a
tainted DA clouds Texas justice.

In order to determine whether the state might have executed an innocent man, Texas needs a clear-eyed, objective investigation into the circumstances surrounding the conviction and capital punishment of Ruben Cantu in 1993.

When Texas' highest court for criminal matters declined to halt the
tainted, conflict-burdened investigation, it provided only more uncertainty. The facts in the Cantu case are troubling. Convicted of a 1984 robbery in which one victim was killed and the other wounded, Cantu's execution is clouded by three witnesses' recent claims of Cantu's innocence. One witness is the surviving shooting victim.

The integrity of the criminal justice system depends on a thorough vetting of the evidence, old and new, to determine the truth of those disturbing claims. What's more unsettling, this investigation is being undertaken by the woman who, as a state district judge, reviewed one of Cantu's appeals and signed his death warrant. The court's decision, predictably supportive of the prosecution regardless of the facts, allows Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed to roll forward with an investigation that is tainted by her clear conflict of interest.

Concern for the validity of the investigation grew with the revelation that 2 of Reed's top investigators were recorded on a public police phone line calling Cantu's convicted co-defendant, David Garza, a bastard and declaring that all the witnesses, who include Garza, were lying. That recording prompted Garza's attorney to ask the Court of Criminal Appeals to remove Reed from the inquiry in favor of an independent special prosecutor.

In refusing the lawyer's appeal, the court disregarded a letter submitted to the court and signed by 22 legal scholars calling for an independent inquiry. And the judges left the impression that a clouded investigation into even credible allegations of a wrongful execution is good enough for Texas justice. The judges issued no written opinion.

The situation is made worse by other Texas death penalty cases crying out for review. A "statement of concern" by the heads of 7 justice advocacy organizations points out that the state has executed 2 other men under murky circumstances, Cameron Todd Willingham (based on arson evidence now thought to be unreliable) and Carlos De Luna (possibly because of mistaken identity).

The statement calls on the Legislature to fund the Texas Forensic Science Commission to review the Willingham case and others that raise similar questions of forensic science. It also calls on lawmakers to establish an Innocence Commission to "conduct fair and independent investigations in cases where plausible claims are raised that Texas executed an innocent person."

If Cantu was guilty of killing a man, as the San Antonio district
attorney's office confidently claims, it shouldn't bother the lead prosecutor to have an investigator without ties to the case giving it a comprehensive review. Stubbornly refusing to give up the case only underscores Susan Reed's conflict of interest. Her investigation can't promise that, at the end of the investigation, justice will have been done.

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