In a state with bad news almost every day for those incarcerated in Texas jails, prisons and detention centers, the past week was a happy anomaly. Not only did the U.S. Supreme Court rule April 20 in favor of death row prisoner Rodney Reed, who has tried for years to get DNA testing done on the murder weapon in his case, but the execution of Ivan Cantu scheduled for April 26 was stayed. Plus, a new civil rights lawsuit by four men contesting the tortuous conditions on Texas death row has been filed. What a week!
Rodney Reed is a Black man from Bastrop, Texas, who has been wrongfully held on death row since 1998. His only crime was having a relationship with a white woman, Stacey Stites, who was engaged to a cop. For 25 years Reed and his large and supportive family have been fighting alongside activists to prove his innocence in Stites’ murder. In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that said Reed had waited too long to make the request for DNA testing.
The court majority ruled that the two-year window to file civil rights claims in federal court starts counting down only after state court proceedings are finished.
“The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling today is a critical step toward the ultimate goal of getting DNA testing in Rodney Reed’s case,” said Parker Rider-Longmaid, one of Reed’s attorneys. (texastribune.org, April 19)
Testing would include things from the crime scene never previously tested, such as the belt used to strangle Stites. Stites’ fiancée was heard several times saying he’d kill her if he ever found out she was seeing an n-word. This cop had served 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman he stopped for a traffic violation — while in uniform! While in prison he admitted to another prisoner, who was in a white-supremacist gang, that he killed Stacey.
The murder weapon was never tested. Don’t they always test the murder weapon? Well, not if a cop is involved, it seems.
Execution of Cantu canceled
For 22 years, Ivan Cantu has maintained his innocence. On April 19, just one day after his attorney filed an appeal citing newly discovered evidence, state district Judge Benjamin Smith withdrew the execution warrant that had set Cantu’s last day of life for April 26.
When I saw Ivan in the visiting room a few weeks ago, I told his visitor, loudly enough so that Ivan could hear me through the phones being used, that we were all pulling for him and hoping for a stay. He gave the biggest smile and mouthed “thank you.” The man I was visiting said that Ivan now had good attorneys and was hopeful. But hope is so often squashed down here that I try not to get hopeful very often.
So, when the news came out the execution date was withdrawn, there were tears of joy on my face. Joy that Ivan would live, although who knows for how long, but the execution list for 2023 for Texas was now empty!
The judge said the new arguments just presented would require further review. Plus, two of Cantu’s original jurors have said they no longer support his execution after hearing new details of his innocence claims. These jurors from the 2001 trial now support his new appeals saying the district attorney relied on false testimony and withheld crucial evidence.
Ivan will be 50 years old in June, and he’s been in solitary confinement on Texas’ tortuous death row since he was 28 years old.
“Because Mr. Cantu’s case raises troubling questions that undermine the integrity of the conviction, the court’s decision to withdraw the execution date to permit further review was the appropriate next step,” Gena Bunn, Cantu’s attorney, said. (cbsnews.com, April 21)
Lawsuits to improve conditions
The last bit of good news is a conversation I had with an attorney, Pieter Van Tol, with one of the largest law firms in the world. He and a team of attorneys are representing prisoners on Texas death row in a civil lawsuit challenging conditions.
Why is this exciting? Attorney Van Tol represented the men on death row at Angola prison in Louisiana, who challenged the conditions and won! A settlement was reached, and they now are out of their cells for most of the day. They have a communal meal every day, and they have access to education and religious services.
Most people have heard of the horrible prison in Louisiana called Angola, which is a former slave plantation. One of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox, wrote a book before he died last summer from COVID-19 called “Solitary.” It details the excruciatingly horrible conditions at Angola Prison.
The lawsuit for Texas death row prisoners is just getting started, but my thinking is that if Angola can be made more bearable after a win there, then Texas death row can be too!
The writer is a leader of the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement.