Texas' execution of Ruben Cantu for a crime he didn't commit demonstrates a profound disrespect for life by the criminal justice system -- for Cantu's, for the murder victim's, and for the safety of the rest of us who pay police and prosecutors' salaries. (The Houston Chronicle's Lise Olson reported this week that all the witnesses against Cantu have recanted, and most people involved in the case now believe he didn't do it.)
For Cantu, who was 17 when the crime was committed for which he was executed, the disrespect for life is obvious -- the government took the easy way out instead of doing their job. Police decided who they wanted to die for the crime before their so-called "investigation" even started, then railroaded a witness into accusing Cantu after he'd told them twice Cantu wasn't the guy. They never interviewed witnesses who could have provided Cantu with an alibi or even identified the real killer. The District Attorney failed to look for corroboration for the single eyewitness, ramrodding the conviction through despite the fact that false eyewitness testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the country. Nobody blinked. Nobody cared. They just wanted the conviction.
Nearly as grave is the disrespect shown to the murder victim and his family, who suffer a second indignation when the government casts aside accuracy in a rush to secure a conviction. Crime victims and their loved ones receive no benefit or satisfaction when the person punished played no part in the affair. Can you imagine how it must feel to find out so many years later not only that the killer wasn't punished, but someone was executed who wasn't responsible for your pain? It's unimaginable.
Finally, the case shows disrespect for public safety and for justice: After all, the real killer is still out there, unpunished for this heinous crime. You've got to wonder about prosecutors' priorities. San Antonio District Attorney Susan Reed sounded defensive and reticent to think about the implications:
"I found the articles very troubling," she said Monday. "I've always said it is not our goal that an innocent person will be punished."
However, "She is skeptical about recanted testimony," and expressed no concern that someone who committed capital murder might still be on the loose. She said she'd wait to consider it after her own office could investigate, but who knows how long that will take? The original crime happened nearly 20 years ago.
How can the public have faith in a criminal justice system that would allow this to happen? Who can believe that a system delivers true outcomes when it lets a single, uncorroborated eyewitness send a man to the executioner's table? (Or to prison for decades, as in the Tulia cases.) The shame from Ruben Cantu's unjustified death will haunt and reverberate through the Texas criminal justice system for years, and deservedly so. From all appearances, it's a tragedy of the highest order.
Cross-posted at the ACLU of Texas' Liberty Blog.