Truth exposes fallibility of death penalty

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”
— John 8:32

It’s too late for the truth to be of any help to Ruben Cantu. He was executed by the state of Texas 13 years ago after being convicted in a 1984 robbery and murder that left one man dead and another badly wounded. He was 17 at the time of the crime.

Cantu, it must be said, was no angel. He grew up on the south side of San Antonio, a drug user, a gang member and a car thief. But maybe not a killer. In fact, there’s strong evidence to suggest he never committed the crime for which he was put to death, including an alibi witness and a co-defendant who says Cantu was not his accomplice.

But the most convincing evidence is that the sole witness, the surviving victim of the crime, says Cantu didn’t do it.

Back in November when this information came to light in a report by the Houston Chronicle, authorities vowed a vigorous investigation to uncover the truth. However, a new Chronicle report suggests that quite the opposite has happened.

Neither the alibi witness nor the co-defendant has yet given the district attorney a full statement. Both say they want to cooperate, but both have accused prosecutors of instead trying to intimidate them. We don’t have space to detail their claims.

Besides, it is once again the experience of witness Juan Moreno that’s most telling. He hasn’t given a statement either because, you see, the district attorney has threatened to prosecute him. For Cantu’s death.

Confused? Good. I’d hate to think I was the only one.

Moreno was shot nine times that night and only narrowly survived. Police visited him twice in the hospital, but found him barely able to speak. They visited him again the following month, this time armed with a photo array that included a shot of Cantu who, according to neighborhood scuttlebutt, had been involved in the crime. Moreno couldn’t pick him out.

And there the case sat until three months later, when Cantu got into an argument with a guy in a bar. Both were armed, both had been drinking. Cantu shot the guy and wounded him. The guy turned out to be an off-duty cop.

The case never went to trial because overzealous cops apparently tainted evidence and botched the investigation. Despite a roomful of witnesses and his own admissions of involvement, Cantu went free.

And suddenly police had a special hate for this guy. So they went back to Moreno, but he still couldn’t make the ID. The next day, they hauled him down to the station and showed him Cantu’s picture yet again. “They told me they were certain it was him,” Moreno told the Chronicle. So he agreed to agree. Even though he knew this wasn’t the man who shot him.

Moreno’s testimony, by the way, was the only thing tying Cantu to the crime. No fingerprints, no forensics, no firearm. Nineteen years old, an illegal alien, sitting in the police station with cops who obviously wanted him to finger this guy … he says he felt pressured. Can you blame him?

So what are we to make of this threat to prosecute him for Cantu’s death? It’s a desperate ploy, yes. It’s a brazen act of covering your backside, yes. It’s a stretch that would do Yao Ming proud, yes.

But it is also rather pungent proof of how awful a thing the truth can sometimes be. Awful if you’re one of the jurors, cops or prosecutors who likely condemned an innocent man to die and let a guilty one go free. Awful even if you’re just one of those people who desperately needs to believe in the righteousness and infallibility of state-sanctioned killing.
So awful you turn your head, close your eyes, stick fingers in your ears and sing nonsense songs rather than face it.

Because the truth doesn’t always set you free. Sometimes, the truth indicts. Sometimes, the truth condemns. Sometimes, the truth abhors.

Which is why sometimes, times like this, the truth is the last thing anyone wants to know.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com