“My name is Ruben M. Cantu and I am only 18 years old. I got to the 9th grade and I have been framed in a capital murder case.” – a letter delivered to the residents of San Antonio, Texas.

Sarah Royce


Eight years after that letter was made public, the state of Texas executed Ruben Cantu. It was 1993 – more than a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of those convicted of capital crimes committed under the age of 18.

Two weeks ago, the lead prosecution eyewitness in Cantu’s trial recanted his testimony in The Houston Chronicle. Many individuals involved in the case – from the jury’s forewoman to the prosecuting attorney – now believe that Cantu was wrongly convicted.

The tragic, state-sponsored termination of an innocent life in Texas puts to rest any remaining doubts over whether a system of capital punishment can operate without administering the ultimate punishment to those who have done no wrong.

Supposedly – even though there is no definitive evidence – the capital punishment system is designed to protect the innocent by deterring the most brutal and heinous crimes. John McAdams, a professor at Marquette University, has defended this argument: “If we execute murderers and there is in fact no deterrent effect, we have killed a bunch of murderers. If we fail to execute murderers, and doing so would in fact have deterred other murders, we have allowed the killing of a bunch of innocent victims. I would much rather risk the former.” But what happens to this moral calculus when the system, in the interest of saving innocents, executes innocents? Even in the interest of protecting innocent lives, is it not morally repugnant to detain, incarcerate and execute an innocent man?

This is not an isolated case. Barring 13 investigations by Northwestern University journalism students in Illinois, it would have happened 13 times before Gov. George Ryan (R) commuted the sentence of all the state’s death-row inmates. Barring a last-minute decision by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), it most likely would have happened yesterday. Barring a nationwide moratorium on capital punishment, it will happen again.

Despite more than 100 exonerations in the last three decades, legislative chambers across the country remain silent. The debate – or what’s left of it – has deadlocked over the ultimately secondary concerns of financial costs and the deterrent value of state-sanctioned execution. But if the testimony presented by The Houston Chronicle is on point – and there is no reason to believe otherwise – the state of Texas killed an innocent man 12 years ago. If the government is killing the wrong people, does deterrence matter?

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