A young tough shoots a drunk off-duty cop in a pool hall in a rough part of San Antonio in 1984. The wounded cop’s buddies search the kid’s house that night without a warrant, botching any chance for a conviction. But they’re able to get the 17-year-old for an unrelated, unsolved murder in the neighborhood that happened four months before. A friend of the injured officer brings the unsolved murder’s sole eyewitness – an illegal immigrant who was shot nine times – into the station. Though the witness has twice before denied recognizing the kid’s photo, this time he finally identifies the youth as the shooter. The kid is convicted, says he was framed and pleads his innocence up to his execution in 1993.

Sarah Royce

It’d make for the plot of a decent movie – and, unfortunately, that movie would be strictly based on actual events.

The Houston Chronicle reported last month that the state of Texas likely killed an innocent man when it executed Ruben Cantu, the fellow in the plot sketch above. Cantu was far from a model citizen. He was involved in gangs and drugs, although he had no prior criminal convictions. His alibi for the murder was that he’d gone to Waco to steal pickups. He admitted to shooting the off-duty officer, Joe De La Luz, although Cantu maintained it was in self-defense after an argument over a pool game.

But it also appears that Cantu was innocent of the crime for which he was given a lethal injection. There was never any physical evidence tying him to the murder; he was convicted based on the testimony of a single eyewitness. That man, Juan Moreno, now says that he buckled under pressure from police and falsely identified Cantu two days after the De La Luz shooting. The head juror, the judge and both the defense attorney and the prosecutor now have doubts about Cantu’s guilt.

With a national debate about the death penalty surrounding the execution last Friday of the thousandth person since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, I was surprised the revelations about Cantu’s trial didn’t receive greater attention. This really looks like a case where the government put a man to death for a crime he didn’t commit. That, in my mind, ought to be a big deal.

Part of the reason why the Chronicle’s article didn’t make much of an impression nationally, I suspect, is that we’ve come to expect flaws in the justice system – even in capital cases. Since 1976, over 120 people across the country have been released from death row, despite having been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Tales of ill-prepared, inexperienced public defenders falling asleep in court, of convictions based on the testimony of lying jailhouse snitches and of sloppy forensics labs that seem to contaminate evidence as soon as it’s received are so common they’ve become numbing.

But a bigger reason why Ruben Cantu is not a household name, I worry, is that many people just don’t find what happened to him that outrageous. Aside from the base retributive glee of putting vicious criminals to death, many death penalty supporters argue that executions are a necessary deterrent to crime. Yes, this does means that some innocent people will be put to death. No human institution – our judicial system included – is perfect. But won’t we save more innocent lives that would otherwise be lost to crime?

I’ve seen evidence both ways on the question of whether the death penalty deters crime, and my limited experience with research on such broad social concerns has mainly convinced me that these questions are frighteningly difficult to answer with any certainty.

But the death penalty debate in this country, it too often seems, is conducted solely in these empirical, utilitarian terms. How many lives are saved per murderer executed? With the cost of appeals, does it cost more to sentence someone to death or to life without parole? How much would sweeping judicial reforms cost, and how much would they decrease the chance of executing (more) innocents?

In every other case where government policy directly affects life and death, the debate proceeds largely in moral terms about the range and limits of our freedoms. I might not always like the direction these moral debates take. I don’t believe Jack Kevorkian, who aimed to help people end their lives as they chose, would be in prison in a more enlightened society. Still, we can’t come to ethical conclusions on these issues if we rely strictly on some mechanistic utilitarian calculus to make our decisions for us; we’re stuck with slow, messy moral thought.

Here’s my contribution to the debate we need to have: It is wrong, period, for the government to execute an innocent person.


Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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