Faith Leaders Urged Texas To Reconsider Death Penalty Case | Sojourners

Faith Leaders Urged Texas To Reconsider Death Penalty Case

Sister Helen Prejean speaks at a press conference outside the Collin County, Texas Courthouse on Feb. 26, 2024.

Update: Ivan Cantu was executed on by the State of Texas on Feb. 28. He maintained his innocence in his final statement.

In the almost 23 years that Ivan Cantu has been on death row in Texas, a lot has changed: A trial witness admitted he lied on the stand. A true crime podcast revealed several forensic oversights in the details of Cantu’s case. And hundreds of thousands of people have petitioned for courts to reconsider the case. But one thing hasn’t changed: Cantu is still on death row, and his execution is now scheduled for Feb. 28. With few avenues of appeal left, a coalition of faith leaders, family members, and true crime podcast listeners say evidence that could prove Cantu’s innocence deserves to be heard by a court.

Cantu has been on death row since 2001, when a Collin County jury found him guilty of the 2000 murder of his cousin James Mosqueda and Mosqueda’s fiancée, Amy Kitchen. Cantu has maintained his innocence, and evidence in his favor has been mounting for the two decades he has been on death row. When his execution date was set a second time, he wrote a letter to Sister Helen Prejean, a prominent advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, asking her to be with him in the execution chamber.

“It’s a letter that when I get it I know I have to say yes,” Prejean said during a news conference on the steps of the Collin County Courthouse.

Prejean and Cantu’s mother, Sylvia Cantu, delivered a petition for Collin County to withdraw its request for the death penalty and give Cantu a new evidentiary hearing. As Prejean learned about Cantu’s case, she felt that it demanded more than just spiritual accompaniment. She felt she would be complict with injustice to simply “pray him into eternity,” she said, without trying to get a court to hear the evidence.

And try she has. Prejean joined forces with prominent anti-death penalty activists like filmmaker Martin Sheen and progressive political action group MoveOn, which created and promoted the petition Prejean and Sylvia Cantu delivered to Collin County. Kim Kardashian also shared the petition on X, the platform previously known as Twitter.

Matt Duff, the host of Cousins By Blood, a podcast about Cantu’s case that has unveiled new details that cast doubt on the evidence used in Cantu’s conviction, linked the petition to the podcast. The petition had tens of thousands of signatures at the time of delivery, and the number continues to grow online. Supporters also wrote 4,000 letters and made hundreds of calls to the district attorney, said a representative from MoveOn.

“I hope (the district attorney) reads over every one of them,” Sylvia Cantu said to organizers after delivering the signatures.

An alternate theory as to who shot the couple has even emerged, supporting the claims made by Cantu all along. Cantu’s first execution date was scheduled for 2012, and another for 2023, but both were called off, first because federal litigation over the case was ongoing, and then because a state judge felt the new evidence merited review. Four months later the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the appeal for an evidentiary hearing saying Cantu’s appeal did not rise to the criteria required by the state’s code of criminal procedure.

Amy Moore, the pastor of NorthPark Presbyterian Church in Dallas, was with Prejean and Sylvia Cantu at the news conference in Collin County, said that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reason for denying the evidentiary hearing in 2023 amounted to a miscarriage of justice.

“It should weigh heavy on those people’s hearts if they would sacrifice an innocent person for the sake of procedure,” Moore said.

Moore said she has always opposed the death penalty, even for those who are guilty. But in Cantu’s case, she said, the clear possibility that he might not be guilty points to the fallibility of the system, and the reason such a system shouldn’t have the power over life and death.

“We all need to be more attentive to what the system is doing,” Moore said.

She knows that it’s easy to ignore miscarriages of justice that we think will never affect us — since most people don’t imagine themselves falsely convicted of murder. It’s easy to think that those systemic issues only affect some unlucky “them” out there, she said, but in God’s world, “‘them’ is us.”

Prejean said they are appealing particularly to Collin County’s Conviction Integrity Unit, a special unit within the district attorney’s office which considers post-conviction reviews, petitions against unlawful imprisonment, and clemency petitions. There are only around 100 conviction integrity units in the country, and around half have produced exonerations.

“We have a lot of questions about the integrity of this conviction,” Prejean said.

In his original trial, Cantu’s defense did not call a single expert witness to counter the Collin County DA’s full docket of forensic specialists.

“They did not have a defense investigator,” Cantu’s attorney Gena Bunn told the Texas Tribune. “Even considering how capital representation was 20 years ago, still that blows my mind.”

The discrepancies in the case against Cantu sparked the interest of private investigators, including Duff. Cousins By Blood has unveiled a host of details that call into question the guilty verdict, such as incongruent ballistics and the recovery of a lost watch that witnesses said Cantu stole. Additionally, one witness has admitted that he lied under oath about Cantu.

When Duff presented the evidence he had uncovered to the head juror in Cantu’s original trial, the juror wrote to the state that the verdict should be reconsidered. He also attended the Collin County petition delivery where the former juror told CNN, “I believe that due process should be conclusive, but there’s mistakes ... And I’m afraid this is one of those, and I really regret that it was the one that I was involved in. But I’m convinced that there’s some holes in this.”

So far, the petitions have not been heeded, and Collin County DA Greg Willis has refused to allow the Conviction Integrity Unit to consider the case. Cantu’s lawyers also have appeals before other courts who will likely issue their decisions regarding the case in the two days before the execution. The Texas Board of Pardon and Paroles denied Cantu’s appeal on Feb. 26.

Cantu’s trial took place during the a 10-year span in Texas — from 1997-2007 — when both death sentences and executions in the state were at an all time high. Twenty-six people were sentenced to death in 2001, the same year as Cantu. That number declined precipitously in the following years, and has been in the single digits per year since 2015. Twenty-nine states and 112 countries have either abolished or placed a moratorium on the use of capital punishment.

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