Doubts Surface on Guilt of Man Executed in Texas

New evidence and witness testimony has raised doubts about the guilt of a man executed in Texas in 1993. Madeleine Brand speaks with Lise Olsen, reporting on the case for the Houston Chronicle, about the possibly wrongful execution of convicted murderer Ruben Cantu.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

We're going to take some time in this part of the program to tell you the story of Ruben Cantu, a young Texas man convicted of murder and executed by lethal injection. In recent years, we've learned that more than a hundred people on death row were actually innocent. A few of those prisoners had been within hours of execution, but there have been no cases where we know conclusively that an innocent prisoner was actually executed until now. It appears that Texas executed an innocent man, Ruben Cantu, in 1993. Now 12 years after his death, two people involved in the case say Cantu was innocent. Reporter Lise Olsen investigated this story for the Houston Chronicle. She told us about Ruben Cantu's life as a teen-ager in San Antonio.

Ms. LISE OLSEN (Houston Chronicle): Ruben Cantu was a teen-ager who had a mother and father who loved him, but who split up when he was 14. And his mother moved 20 miles away and he grew up with his dad on literally a mean street in south San Antonio. He ran with other kids who were known as the Grey Eagles in a sort of loosely organized group that I don't think would qualify as a regular gang but certainly was called that by police. He struggled in school and he had lots of run-ins with police. And so when a man was murdered across the street from his house, he was a natural suspect for them.

BRAND: Well, tell us about the night of that murder.

Ms. OLSEN: On the night of that murder, there were two men, Pedro Gomez and Juan Moreno, sleeping in a house under construction that was almost directly across the street from where Ruben Cantu grew up. And in that house, there was virtually nothing. They were sleeping in there kind of guarding it because someone had recently stolen a water heater out of it. And both worked construction, worked for cash. They were sleeping in their clothes with their pockets full of the money they had earned.

Sometime before midnight, two teen-agers broke into the house and began to rob them, took their watches and tried to take their money. And as they were doing the robbery--there's different accounts of this, but apparently, Pedro reached under the mattress for a gun that was hidden there. And at that point, one of the two teen-agers who carried a rifle began to fire at him, almost instantly killing him from all accounts. And he was shot at least nine times and then the same rifle was turned on his companion, Juan Moreno, who was only 19 years old, recently in the United States from Mexico. Juan went down and the two people who were there, the boys, teen-agers who attacked them, thought he was dead, too, and they ran away, but Juan survived. Juan was able to get out of the house, call for help and eventually recovered from his wounds, although he lost a lung, a kidney, a spleen and still has a belly that's pockmarked with bullet holes.

BRAND: And he eventually turned out to be one of the key witnesses in the trial of Ruben Cantu. He identified Ruben Cantu as the killer. And why did he do that? Why did he identify Ruben Cantu?

Ms. OLSEN: Well, Juan's story is--and this is born out by police records, as well--that when he initially survived the shooting, the police came to see him in the hospital and started to show him photos and he thought that they were from the neighborhood. He thought they were from the barrio there. And so they began to bring in photos sort of randomly of kids from the neighborhood, showed him a number of photos, including the photo of Ruben Cantu, who lived across the street. He did not identify Ruben on that first go-around and he didn't identify anyone else, either.

Then three months passed and Juan got better, but really didn't hear anything much more from police. And then something happened to change all that. Ruben Cantu one evening was in a place called the Scabaroo Lounge near his house shooting pool with another friend and he ran into an off-duty police officer who was wearing plain clothes and had a couple of guns on under his clothes. The police officer said that there was no words exchanged between them, that Cantu just up and shot him. Cantu's version was the officer threatened him and that he had no idea he was a police officer, showed him his gun, and so Ruben Cantu who also carried guns fired at him.

The officer survived that shooting, but almost immediately, even that same day, the sergeant of homicide who was a friend of his decided to reopen the murder investigation against Ruben Cantu and the other unsolved case. And the next morning, he sent out an officer to Juan Moreno once more to see if he could get an identification of Ruben Cantu again. Juan Moreno said, `No, this isn't the guy.' And then on a third occasion, the very next day, the same sergeant sent you yet another homicide detective and this time on the third go-around, they brought Juan, who was an illegal immigrant, at that time into the homicide division, sat him down with the homicide detective and the sergeant. The sergeant said, `I know you know who did it,' showed him again the pictures.

Juan said he felt tremendous pressure and that he knew from--it's unclear who told him, but he knew that Ruben Cantu was the person that they wanted to and that Ruben Cantu had been involved in shooting a police officer. And so he identified Ruben Cantu, and he says, `Now I did the wrong thing. It was wrong for me to do that,' but at the time, he felt that that's what he had to do. He felt like that was what his duty was. Then he went on at trial to identify Ruben Cantu as the shooter, but he says today that the person who shot him looked nothing like Ruben Cantu.

BRAND: And the other teen-ager who was there that night, not the teen-ager who was firing, but the teen-ager who was involved in the robbery, now also says that Ruben Cantu was not involved.

Ms. OLSEN: That's correct. The other teen-ager who was there that night, he was involved in the shooting. His name is David Garza. He was 15 at the time this happened. He never gave a complete statement to the police about what happened that night, never admitted his own role, was questioned about Ruben Cantu, said he saw Ruben that night outside the house, but his story today is that he, in fact, was involved in the robbery, did go inside the house, did participate, witnessed the murder, but that the person who was inside the house that night with him was another teen. It was not Ruben Cantu.

BRAND: And he told you who that person is?

Ms. OLSEN: He named that person by name. I've spoken with that person. That person has intimate knowledge of the crime, but he denies being involved. We have decided at the newspaper not to name him right now because he has not been charged with the crime.

BRAND: And you report--and I found this most extraordinary--is that Cantu also knew who the real killer was, but he said nothing the entire time.

Ms. OLSEN: Ruben Cantu was a very interesting person. He was a kid who, from the time he was very young, was extremely quiet and kept secrets even from his family. And when he grew up in that neighborhood, the code of the neighborhood was very clear to everyone, that if you were involved in anything or saw anything or even if you weren't involved and only suspected and knew of things, you did not speak about it.

David's story--and David was a good friend of Ruben's--is that he told Ruben about the robbery and what happened, about how someone died, and so Ruben knew who was there. Ruben knew who else was involved because of David, is what David's account is, but that David says Ruben never wanted someone else to go to death row in his place even to save his own life, that he always felt that there was some other way for him to be cleared. He really believed that the courts would question the way Juan Moreno came to identify him on the third pass. He also believed that the fact that he was only 17 when this happened would carry weight with the courts and that he would never need to use this information.

And this is nothing that we can ask Ruben about, but I do have a lot of letters that Ruben had written that do urge his attorney to talk to David to try to get exculpatory information, to talk to other people, and she did not.

BRAND: Well, now what does that lawyer say? What do the prosecutors say? What does the judge say? What do they all say now that they have this information?

Ms. OLSEN: Well, the lawyer has always felt that this was a travesty of justice. She was very unprepared to represent Ruben Cantu at the time she did it. She was a really young lawyer, had no death penalty experience. She didn't know the procedures for the 5th Circuit or the federal courts or even how to write a state writ, which were all things she was having to do for him. But she feels a lot of--I think always and has always even before this came out, a lot of remorse, a lot of sadness about what happened to Ruben Cantu. She says it's the worse experience in her life.

BRAND: So now are officials working to posthumously exonerate Cantu?

Ms. OLSEN: Well, the DA who was DA at the time is very troubled by this case and he has urged for that. The current DA in San Antonio who had a small role in the case because at the time she was a judge and she set Ruben Cantu's execution date--she so far says she's more concerned about the possibility that there might be another murderer out there who's never been punished and that she's concerned that someone's perjury might have actually killed someone else. She's actually considering--she's told our columnist Rick Casey--the possibility of pursing murder charges against Juan Moreno, murder by perjury basically.

BRAND: Wow. That's shocking to the victim who was almost killed that night and who...

Ms. OLSEN: That's right.

BRAND: ...was forced to identify the wrong man, or who says he was forced to identify the wrong man.

Ms. OLSEN: She feels that he has not so far presented a case that he was forced illegally in anything that would have been illegal by the homicide detectives. And so he bears responsibility for perjury. She hasn't determined that he, indeed, committed perjury but she says she's looking at the possibility that she could charge him with murder of Ruben Cantu, because his statement is what--it was the only evidence against Ruben Cantu. There was no other evidence. There was no physical evidence, there was no murder weapon ever found, there was no fingerprints found that put Ruben in that house. It was Juan Moreno's word.

BRAND: And this must be quite unusual for Texas to investigate a capital case like this.

Ms. OLSEN: I think it's unprecedented.

BRAND: Lise Olsen is a reporter with the Houston Chronicle. We've been talking about her investigative report into the execution of Ruben Cantu.

And, Lise Olsen, thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. OLSEN: Thank you for inviting me.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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