George Bush's home state of Texas suffered the rare indignity yesterday of being accused by one of its own most prominent newspapers of putting an innocent man to death.
The Houston Chronicle put together an impressive dossier of sworn statements and retracted testimony along with doubts expressed by the prosecuting attorney to suggest that Ruben Cantu of San Antonio should never have been charged with capital murder, much less convicted and executed.
Cantu was just 17 when he was arrested for killing a man during a botched robbery on San Antonio's notoriously rough South Side in 1985. He was convicted on the evidence of a single eyewitness, who identified him only after being shown his picture by police on three separate occasions. And he was put to death by lethal injection in 1993, when he was 26.
There is nothing new about doubts arising from death penalty cases in the United States, and especially not in Texas, which leads the nation in both executions and the vehemence of the anti-capital punishment movement. Even Texan voters, who are broadly supportive of their state's tough approach to criminal justice including the controversial execution of defendants who were minors at the time of the offence have told opinion pollsters they believe some innocent people have been put to death.
State officials have always defended themselves with the argument that no executed prisoner has ever been formally proven to have been innocent. That argument, however, may be tested with the new information on the Cantu case.
Cantu's best friend David Garza, who was charged with involvement in the robbery but not in the murder, has come forward with a sworn statement saying the triggerman was someone else. The eyewitness who testified at trial, a man named Juan Moreno who survived being shot nine times that night, has now retracted that testimony.
"They put the blame on the wrong person," Moreno told the Chronicle. "[Cantu] was innocent. I am sure." Both men say they have no reason to lie, and are speaking out now out of guilt at the consequences of their actions at the time of the trial. Garza did not testify. Moreno agreed to testify as he was in the United States illegally at the time and faced all kinds of trouble if he did not play along.
It is not uncommon across the United States for death penalty cases to be constructed on the testimony of criminals or convicts, who may be susceptible to dishonesty and manipulation by police or prison guards. Prosecutors will tend to argue obstinately for the guilt of the defendant even when new evidence points the other way. But in the Cantu case the prosecuting lawyer has told the Chronicle he made a mistake in bringing a capital case in the first place.
Sam Millsap Jr, who was district attorney in San Antonio at the time of the Cantu trial, acknowledged that the Moreno testimony was thin even to begin with. "It's so questionable. There are so many places where it could break down," he told the paper.