Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Castillo: Eyewitness testimony not enough

Speaking of corroborating eyewitness testimony and improving identification practices, Jaime Castillo has a column this morning in the SA Express News that shows why changes are needed. He's discussing Ruben Cantu, a San Antonio man executed based on the word of a single eyewitness who was apparently coerced by police. Now, even the DA who prosecuted the case thinks executing him was the wrong call. Wrote Castillo ("Texas legal system failed Cantu - whether he was guilty or not"):

Justice wasn't served in 1985 when prosecutors relied on a lone eyewitness, Juan Moreno, to convict Cantu. ...

As far as I can tell, this much has been proven: Moreno was a bad witness then and he's a bad witness now.

The fact that Cantu's prosecution bordered on a travesty is now not in much dispute. Sam Millsap, the former Bexar County district attorney who made the decision to charge Cantu with capital murder, has publicly admitted it was the wrong decision.

Chief among the problems was the case was built on an eyewitness — Moreno — who twice had failed to identify Cantu in photos shown to him by police.

On the third try, Moreno, feeling pressure by police, identified Cantu as his friend's killer.

"It's so questionable. There are so many places where it could break down," Millsap, who's now in private practice, told the Houston Chronicle in November 2005. "We have a system that permits people to be convicted based on evidence that could be wrong because it's mistaken or because it's corrupt."

Millsap's candor, unfortunately, is rare in this case.

The Cantu case shows how shortcuts taken in a rush to convict can haunt the legitimacy of a conviction and ultimately, of the entire justice system. Making penalties harsher without addressing the inadequacies of eyewitness testimony risks even worse punishment for innocent defendants, not to mention declining legitimacy for the legal system in the public eye.

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