Lied to death: Criminals end up victims

By Leonard Pitts Jr.: Syndicated columnist

So I read in the paper where another man is about to be lied to death.

The first such story I am aware of was published last year in the Houston Chronicle. It concerned a street punk named Ruben Cantu, who was executed in 1993 for shooting two men, killing one. Cantu was sentenced based on the word of a single witness, the shooting survivor. That man now says it wasn’t Cantu who shot him and that he was pressured to say otherwise by police. The Chronicle concluded that Cantu almost certainly did not commit the crime for which he was killed.

Ruben Cantu, meet Tyrone Noling. Noling is a resident of death row at Ohio State Penitentiary whose story was told last week by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Noling, a petty thief, was convicted of the 1990 murder of an elderly couple. The case against him was based on testimony from three members of his gang who told the court Noling forced his way into the home of Bearnhardt and Cora Hartig and shot them to death.

All three now say they were lying, two in exchange for lesser charges and a third in exchange for immunity. They say they were coached and coerced by Ron Craig, an investigator for the prosecutor’s office. For instance, Butch Wolcott, the man who received immunity, could not describe the murder scene until Crag took him there. Wolcott told the Plain Dealer the investigator also gave him access to the evidence file.

Wolcott still had trouble getting his story straight. He claimed Noling used a phone cord yanked from the wall to bind his victims. But the phone cord was found intact and the couple was not tied. And yet on the word of this man and two others — one of whom recanted on the witness stand — Noling was sentenced to death. No murder weapon, no DNA, no fingerprints, no nothing except the word of three thieves.

Noling was 18 at the time of the murders. I am no fan of capital punishment under even the best of circumstances. Its faults are legion, including that it’s biased by race, gender, geography and class, more expensive than lifetime incarceration, has no deterrent value and once applied, cannot be reversed in the event of error. The death penalty is a crude, vestigial remnant of frontier justice and an embarrassment to any sense or pretense of moral authority this nation might claim. The best thing we can do with it is end it.

But, even if I didn’t feel that way, I’d still be appalled by the idea that a man can be sent to death row based on little more than some guy’s word.

Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci feels differently. He told the paper none of this causes him to lose sleep, which is pretty much what you’d expect him to say. Belief in the death penalty requires a facade of certitude. Conscience is an inconvenience. Facts even moreso. Don’t know what you know. Don’t ask; don’t tell.

And never mind that while the probably innocent are being nudged toward conviction, the certainly guilty get away with murder. Never mind that justice is perverted, subverted and denied in the name of justice. Most of all, never mind that you can be sent to death without a shred of evidence except the word of liars given every reason to lie.

Tyrone Noling was a punk. Ruben Cantu was, too. And it is easy, from the perch of middle-class respectability, middle-class fear, not to care overmuch that they were treated unfairly. It requires only moral cowardice and a willingness to look the other way. These things we have in abundance.

What we have in lesser supply is the guts to see and say the obvious: The law should not allow the death penalty in cases hinging solely on witness testimony. That has nothing to do with sympathy for devils. It has everything to do with the integrity and credibility of a broken system.
If we don’t care about Cantu or Noling, we should at the very least care about that.

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