Reports that three innocent people may have been executed by Texas should shake the souls of every person in this state. These continuing reports of executions of innocent people indicate that we have an emergency situation in Texas. The death penalty system here is clearly not capable of sorting out the guilty from the innocent before strapping people down for their lethal injections. Texas district attorneys and judges could enact an immediate moratorium on executions by agreeing to cancel all execution dates until the next session of the Texas Legislature has an opportunity to address the crisis. Certainly the next session of the Legislature should act to suspend executions.
In 2001, committees in both the Texas House and Senate approved moratorium legislation, but in 2003 and 2005 moratorium bills died in committee. Since the last regular session of the Texas Legislature adjourned in 2005, two new cases in Texas have come to light in which innocent people were probably executed – Ruben Cantu and Carlos De Luna. Right before the 2005 session started, the case of Cameron Willingham had already been reported in the papers. Another innocent person, Ernest Willis, was exonerated and released from Texas’ Death Row in Oct 2006. Even the most ardent supporters of the death penalty in the Legislature should now be willing to suspend executions in order to examine why innocent people are being sentenced to death and even executed in Texas.
Theodore M. Shaw, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, summarized the three innocence cases in The Washington Post on July 2, 2006:
Willingham was a 36-year-old father of three from Corsicana, Tex., who was executed in February 2004 for murder by arson. In December 2004, the Chicago Tribune reported that new scientific knowledge proves that the testimony by arson experts at Willingham’s trial was worthless, and that there is no evidence that the fire was caused by arson. A panel of the nation’s leading arson experts confirmed that conclusion in March. In a strikingly similar case, Ernest Willis, a white oilfield worker from New Mexico, was convicted on the same sort of evidence and sentenced to death for murder by arson in Pecos County, Tex., in 1987. Willis was exonerated and freed in October 2004, eight months after Willingham was put to death.
Ruben Cantu, a 26-year-old Hispanic man from San Antonio, was executed in August 1993 for a robbery-murder committed in 1985 when he was 17. The Houston Chronicle followed up on the initial exploration by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and published the results of its own investigation last November. The newspaper reported that another defendant, who pleaded guilty to participating in the crime but did not testify at Cantu’s trial, has signed an affidavit swearing that Cantu was not with him that night and had no role in the murder. More important, the only witness who did testify — a second victim, who was shot nine times but survived — now says that police pressured him to identify Cantu as the shooter, and that he did so even though Cantu was innocent.
Last week, the Chicago Tribune (again following up on initial inquiries by the Legal Defense Fund) published a detailed reexamination of yet another case, that of Carlos DeLuna, a young Hispanic man from Corpus Christi, Tex., who was executed in December 1989 for stabbing a convenience store clerk to death in 1983. DeLuna, who was convicted on the basis of a quick on-the-scene witness identification, claimed that the killer was a man named Carlos Hernandez.
The prosecution argued that Hernandez was a “phantom.” The Tribune found that Hernandez (who died in prison in 1999) was not only no phantom, but also no stranger to law enforcement. In fact, one of DeLuna’s prosecutors knew Hernandez well from an earlier homicide investigation. Hernandez and DeLuna were strikingly similar in appearance but, unlike DeLuna, Hernandez had a long history of knife attacks similar to the convenience store killing and repeatedly told friends and relatives that he had committed the murder for which DeLuna was executed.
It’s too late to save those men — or the victims of other erroneous executions that have not yet come to light. But it’s time to recognize that, regardless of our views on the death penalty, any future debates must proceed with the knowledge that we have put innocent people to death.