If you are a regular reader than you know I do not always agree with a jury verdict. You also know that I have often said I am neither for or against the death penalty but I believe there should be absolutely no question what so ever that the person that is executed is guilty of their crime. The only case that I feel I could categorically state that I felt a person was innocent and yet executed is the case of Todd Willingham in Texas.... this is until now. Maybe it is not a coincidence that this case also took place in Texas or that after years of having what was called an “express lane” to their execution chamber that Texas slowed their process down and started offering more DNA testing to inmates. This is also a case that today would not have seen the perpetrator executed as he was a minor when the crime occurred.
On November 8, 1984 at a house under construction in San Antonio Texas to men were shot. The home had been burglarized previously and a water heater had been taken so Pedro Gomez and nineteen year old Juan Moreno were sleeping inside the home hoping to prevent anything else from being taken. They were awaken when two boys came into the home with a rifle. Both men had several hundred dollars in cash in their pockets and when Gomez went to grab a gun that he had near him the boys shot at the two men. By the time it was over both men would be shot nine times each. Gomez suffered a wound to his head and died instantly but Moreno was able to to reach another home for help before collapsing. Moreno would survive but but he would lose a lung, a kidney and part of his stomach.
San Antonio was having a police problem at this time. There were several scandals going on that involved officers and most of them involved drugs. Several officers were found to be dealing drugs. Vigilantism was rampant also within the area. Whether that had a lot to do with how crimes were investigated is only speculation. However, when it came to this crime scene not only did they have little to go on but by all accounts it was not searched or properly collected. In the process there were no leads. Now, whether this was done because the officers were inept or because at least Moreno was an undocumented immigrant and no one seemed to care a whole lot as time went on is unclear.
The day following the shooting Moreno was in the hospital when officers first went to interview him. However, he had a breathing tube and really had no way of communicating with them. He was no shape to even try. About five days later, after he had recovered a bit officers would again interview him where he would give a vague description of two young Hispanic boys being the perpetrator. Did I mention this was San Antonio? To say two Hispanic boys were the perpetrators was no lead at all. The majority of the population in that area were Hispanic. At this time Moreno was shown a picture lineup and did not identify anyone. Investigators interviewed Moreno again on December 16th, a month after the crime. He was once again shown a picture lineup. This time a juvenile name Ruben Cantu was included. Once again Moreno failed to identify anyone.
After the murders there were rumors going around at the local high school. A shop teacher, who apparently was friends with a police officer reported that he had heard that three kids were involved and that Ruben Cantu was not only involved but had been the shooter. Ruben Cantu was seventeen years old and lived in a trailer park across the street from the house that was being constructed at the time. Two of Cantu's brothers had been in trouble with the law for drugs and theft and while officers believed that Cantu was also involved in legal activity they never had anything to prove anything. It was said that he was in a gang called the Grey Eagles and it was suspected that he was involved with a car stealing ring. It would be later said that Cantu spent much of his time stealing cars and driving them into Mexico where he received cash for them. But again, Cantu was never caught or let alone prosecuted. It appears that the lead detective looked into this but could find nothing to substantiate.
By the time four months had rolled around and Moreno had not identified anyone, the lead detective was transferred and the case went cold. It was believed that without an identification or any other evidence including a weapon the case would never be solved. And then Ruben Cantu had a run in with an off duty police officer named Joe De La Luz at a bar.
What exactly happened at the bar may never fully be known. According to De La Luz, Cantu shot him four times while they were playing pool and was unprovoked. According to Cantu he only shot De La Luz after he had threatened him and flashed the two guns he had on him. Cantu would not know until much later that De La Luz was a police officer. The latter information is often important. While shooting an officer can be a capital crime it often must be proven that the perpetrator knew that the victim was a police officer prior to the shooting and that is unclear here. At any rate Cantu was to be charged but the case had to be dropped because the evidence was unavailable to prosecute. Now, there seems to be a dispute as to why this was the case. Attorney's representing Cantu state that this came about because officers had conducted an illegal search of Cantu's home so anything thing they may have obtained and claimed as evidence could not be used. So of course the police department was not happy at the outcome. De La Luz had a friend, Bill Ewell, who worked in the homicide department and it is said due to his distaste of how the case was handled he decided to re-open the Gomez/Moreno case.
The first thing Ewell did was go once more to talk to Moreno. It has been said that at this interview, now his 4th, Moreno still failed to identify Ruben Cantu in a line up but was provided his name. On the following day Moreno was picked up by officers and according to Moreno pressured to identify Cantu in the lineup with the threat of deportation if he failed. The latter part was not revealed by Moreno much later. This was the third time that Cantu had been included in a line up shown to Moreno. Within my research I found articles in which it was stated that Moreno had identified Cantu several times. However, it seems that he only identified him twice. Once was in this fifth interview and the second time was in the courtroom at Cantu's trial.
It is unclear just how fifteen year old David Garza was first identified as being involved in the murder. It is possible that his name came up when the shop teacher informed the police within days, or it is also possible that police found him when they were looking into Cantu as it was said they were best friends. At some point Garza would claim that he had been at the scene but outside the home and had seen Cantu running from the home. He would admit to the robbery but not the murder and while I could not determine how much time he received he did get a deal of some sort despite the fact that he did not testify at Cantu's trial.
Prosecutors would admit that the only evidence that they had against Cantu was the eyewitness testimony on Moreno. They would portray Cantu as a violent thief and gang member despite the fact that he did not have any previous convictions. Cantu maintained his innocence throughout and made no indication that he knew anything about the crime what so ever. It is unclear exactly what kind of a defense was offered. Many years later it would be said that no one that could have provided an alibi for Cantu was ever interviewed by the police, or apparently by defense attorney's.
Cantu was convicted for the crime and was sentenced to death. His execution took place on August 24, 1993 in Huntsville Texas when he was twenty-six years old.
In 2005 a reporter from a Houston newspaper looked into the murder case and things seemed to take a turn. Several things were discovered in the investigation, two witnesses recanted statements and two others expressed regret in Cantu receiving the death penalty. First, one of the things that was found to be interesting was that it was determined that in officer notes it was stated that when Moreno identified Cantu's picture it was signed and dated by him on the back. However, according to transcripts of the trial the picture that was entered into evidence was not dated or signed. Moreno would come out in 2005 and state that police had threatened him with deportation if he did not identify Cantu from the pictures and was even given his name. He would say that he knew Cantu was not the person and that he had described him as having curly hair. He would claim that in all the pictures that he was shown he never saw the perpetrator. Then there was Garza.
By 2005 Garza was back in prison on an unrelated burglary charge. He would claim that he had felt guilt in all the years since the arrest and especially since Cantu's execution. It would be the first time that Garza would admit to not just being at the scene but being one of the shooters. He would claim that Cantu was not the other person with him and named this person to the reporter. At the time the other person was only said to be an “elementary school” student. In fairness, I could not find the now man's name, but even if I had I would not publish it. According to the reporter they talked to this person who denied being involved. Garza would go on to say that being in the gang, and doing the things that they did as teenagers there was one thing that they did not do and that was snitch. I find this statement odd for him to say in 2005 when in fact it appears that he had snitched although obviously not in a court of law. Garza would claim that he told Cantu about the murder approximately two weeks after it was committed and he had named the other boy then. This would mean, if true, that at the time of his arrest and obviously by the time of his execution Cantu, who was still maintaining his own innocence, knew who was involved and failed to say to save his own life.
The reporter who was investigating the case also found their way to Sam Millsap who was the prosecutor for the county at the time of Cantu's trial and had filed for the death penalty in the case. Millsap was no longer a prosecutor and was in private practice by this time. He had once been an ardent supporter of the death penalty but he would later say that by 2005 he was leaning further from that side. It was the information he learned from the reporter that he would later say completely changed his mind on the death penalty and he now no longer believes that it should be in modern society.
Because of the story that the reporter was able to compile there became a huge uproar that it sounded as if Texas had executed and innocent man. This was not a new thought in Texas, especially at this time. In fact, I have to wonder if the reporter had not been looking into the case in the first place because of the Cameron “Todd” Willingham case. There had been questions before Willingham's execution in February of 2004. There was an investigation done after his execution, and likely around the time the reporter began looking into this case. The investigation that was being led or at least overseen by Governor, Rick Perry, was later criticized because when it became apparent that Willingham had been convicted on faulty information and later executed by the person the state was paying to investigate the situation, Perry shut it down from moving forward. In 2007 the state Attorney General had the Cantu case looked into and much like the Willingham case there seemed to be a lot of questions in this so called investigation that did not seem to be on the up and up. It was widely reported that the investigation concluded that Cantu was guilty of the murder and hence the state had not in fact executed an innocent man. It is unclear if they released any information other than a statement that proved their claims.
Another reason the reporter may have looked specifically into this case is because in March of 2005 the Supreme Court ruled that no one could be executed if they had been a minor at the time of the crime. If Cantu were charged with this crime today at the age of seventeen the death penalty would not be an option for the prosecutors.
In my opinion without a murder weapon or a properly collected crime scene it would be impossible for the state to conclusively prove that Ruben Cantu committed the crime for which he was convicted and executed. Even at his trial in 1985 it was said the only evidence came from an eyewitness who has since recanted his identification. In the same respect, it does not surprise me in the least if it were to have found him conclusively innocent. At the rate in which Texas was executing people it seems unreasonable to believe that innocent people were not executed. A 2015 article stated that 527 people had been executed in Texas since the death penalty had been reinstated in 1976. That was an average of over 13 inmates a year so just over one a month. However, in their “hey day” it was much more than that. Over the last several years, while they still perform executions in Texas it is at a much, much slower rate.