Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Case of Ruben Cantu

Ruben Cantu is among the Pantheon of those wrongfully executed by Texas. His name appears frequently with the likes of Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna. His story is simple and compelling.

Two men were shot and robbed while guarding a house under construction. One of the victims, Juan Moreno, survived and identified Ruben Cantu as one of the two men who robbed and shot them. Moreno made that identification only after four previous interviews in which he was unable or unwilling to identify Cantu. Based exclusively on Moreno's testimony, and despite an alibi witness, Cantu was convicted and executed.

Moreno later recanted and claimed he was pressured into saying the shooter was Cantu when in reality it was someone else. The second assailant, David Garza, pled guilty back then but now claims Cantu was not his accomplice. The foreperson now claims the jury was misled. Even the prosecutor has become a death penalty opponent because of this case.

An article by the Houston Chronicle and another in Wikipedia provide the best summary of the evidence arguing that Ruben Cantu was wrongfully executed. Based on that article and other such information, I completed an Actual Innocence Scorecard that scored Ruben Cantu in the nineties. That score, if published, would suggest I rate the likelihood of Cantu’s actual innocence to be greater than 90%. I almost published it.

I was troubled, however, that I had not been able to find a single, cogent document defending Cantu’s execution. Usually, I can rely on the appellate decisions to summarize the best case for the prosecution, but for some reason, I couldn’t find such a document for Cantu. After several attempts, I instead came across a paper entitled “In the Matter of Ron Moreno”, by Susan D. Reed. She was the Bexar County DA in 2007 when the 183 page “summary” was published. She is the Bexar County DA still today.

Reed’s summary was exceedingly biased in favor of the prosecution. To be fair, all previous summaries I had read were exceedingly biased in favor of the defense. Reed’s summary, however, raised substantial doubt on the claims of the Ruben Cantu camp. Of the many arguments she makes, I consider the following to have the most merit.

1. Cantu’s alibi, reinforced after the trial by a friend who claimed they were stealing a cherry-red F150 pickup truck in Waco at the time of the murder, could not be corroborated by any theft records.

2. Cantu confessed to a friend, Ramiro Reyes. Reyes feared Cantu’s family, particularly Cantu’s brother, and declined for a while to sign a statement. Before trial, Reyes reported that he had been shot at three times by someone driving a pickup that looked like Cantu’s brother’s pickup. At one point, he recanted his story, but soon returned to the position that Ruben Cantu confessed the shooting to him. Reyes took and passed a polygraph exam. The DA’s office did not call him as a witness, however, because they too feared for his life. Reyes maintains to this day that Ruben confessed to him the day after the shooting.

3. David Garza did not begin claiming Cantu was not his accomplice until well after Cantu was executed, until shortly after Garza was released from prison. Garza claimed then that his accomplice was Ramiro Reyes. Prior to his guilty plea, he claimed Cantu had been at the scene.

4. Juan Moreno did not recant his testimony for several decades, and only then after multiple meetings with a representative from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. When initially interviewed by the LDF representative, Moreno maintained his identification of Cantu. By the time of his recantation, he had added details to the story never previously told, including a claim that the shooter had curly hair, while Cantu did not.

After reading through Reed’s 183-page summary, several times, I was close to believing that Cantu was probably guilty.  I almost published my Actual Innocence Scorecard. On the fourth day of my review of the Cantu case, however, something caught my eye. It had been there all along, in that 183 page document. It had been hiding in plain site, lost amidst everything else that was in hiding in plain sight.

I present below the substantive portion of the two statements from Juan Moreno. Keep in mind that Juan did not speak English, so the statements were actually typed and translated into English by the detective conducting the interview. Keep in mind also that these two affidavits were placed at separate locations within  the appendicies of the Reed document. One did not immediately follow the other, as presented below. We’ll talk when you’ve finished reading the two segments.

[March 3, 1985]
I want to say that on November 09, 1984 I was at 605 Briggs St. with my brother's, brother-in-law, Pedro Gomez. We were there to spend the night, to take care of the house so no one would break in and steal anything. This was a new house being built. Myself and Pedro went to sleep and were awakened by two men. One of the men had a rifle. I do not know what kind of rifle it was. I do not know how they got into the house. The one with the rifle took Pedro’s wallet from him and told him to pick up the mattress he was sleeping on. When Pedro did this, this man saw a pistol on the floor. Pedro had the pistol there for protection. This man then fired the rifle at Pedro and Pedro fell to the floor. This same man then pointed the rifle at me and shot me. I fell to the floor. I was unconscious for awhile and when I awoke the men were gone. I then went to a neighbor’s house to get help.

On March 02, 1985, Det. Balleza came to my house and he showed me five color pictures of Mexican men. I recognized one of the pictures of one of the men he showed me as being the same man who shot Pedro and me that night. I did not want to tell Det. Balleza who it was because I am afraid and I feared for my family. Today, you Det. Quintanilla asked me it I had recognized anyone in the photos, Det. Balleza showed me and I told you yes. You showed me the same photos and I picked out the one who did the shooting. You told me his name was Ruben Cantu. This is the man who shot Pedro and me. … I would also like to say that the night of the shooting there was a light on in the house and I got a good look at this man but I did not get a good look at the other man that was with him.

[March 5, 1985]
I would like to say that this is a picture of one of the men that in the early part of November 1984, was there at 605 Briggs with the other man that shot me and Pedro Gomez. This is also the same person that took the wallet from Pedro, when the other man with the rifle told Pedro to give them his wallet. You then told me that the name of the person in this picture that identified today is David Garza. ... I would like to add that David Garza is also the one that started kicking me after I had been shot and was laying on the floor, and when I looked up at him after he stopped kicking me, he is also the one that took a record player, our wrist watches were also turned over to David when they asked us for our watches.

What did you notice? Anything?

I noticed that on March 2, Juan Moreno could not or would not identify either Ruben Cantu or David Garza. On March 3, in a statement signed under oath, he could identify Ruben Cantu, but not David Garza. He was explicit that he did not get a good look at the other man. On March 5, in a statement signed under oath, Juan Moreno positively identified David Garza, though 2 days earlier he swore he had not got a good look at the second man. Moreno also changed his story regarding who had taken Gomez' wallet. He  then added new details that conflicted with his earlier statement: instead of becoming unconscious after being shot, he remained conscious long enough to remember that Garza kicked him, long enough to watch Garza steal a record player. Recall once again that only 2 days earlier, Moreno had sworn he did not get a good look at the second man.

I know now that Juan Moreno was and is a malleable witness. The Bexar County DA must have known that as well, yet they used him as the sole basis for the conviction and execution of Ruben Cantu. After the execution, after Juan Moreno had recanted his testimony, the new Bexar County DA dismissed Juan Moreno simply because he changed his story. Their confidence or skepticism in Juan Moreno is as malleable as was his testimony.

Finally, I am now ready to publish my Actual Innocence scorecard for Ruben Cantu. I score him at 43. I think it is more likely that not that he killed Pedro Gomez and shot Juan Moreno. He should not, however, have been convicted, much less executed based solely on the testimony of a witness as unreliable Juan Moreno. There was more than a reasonable doubt that Ruben Cantu was innocent. There is no doubt he is dead.


ADDENDUM: I have since found the ruling by the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in which they reject Cantu's appeal.  That document is far less thorough in disputing Cantu's innocence than is the Reed document.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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