Texas executes innocent Ivan Cantu

The late afternoon and early evening of Feb. 28 were unusually chilly for South Texas as protesters, students and family members of Ivan Cantu gathered in Huntsville outside of the death house waiting for the final confirmation that his execution was going to take place. 

The cousin-in-law and a supporter of Ivan Cantu, Huntsville, Texas, Feb. 28, 2024. (Credit: WW Photo: Gloria Rubac)

Word spread around 5 p.m. that all the courts had ruled against Cantu, his attorney was not filing with the Supreme Court and the execution would begin at 6 p.m.

Cantu’s family, friends and supporters had held out hope until the final minutes that Cantu would be added to the list of exonerees.

Perhaps the cold winds reflected the cold, calculating decisions of every court, every politician and every entity that could have listened to the new evidence and stopped the execution. 

With Sister Helen Prejean, Cantu’s spiritual adviser, touching his hand, Cantu had no other witnesses, and Texas legally lynched a man who had declared his innocence for over 20 years. Time of death was 6:47 p.m. Central Time.

 

Cantu’s final words were: “I want to address the Kitchens and Mosqueda families. I want you to know that I never killed James and Amy. If I knew who did, you would’ve been the first to know any information I would’ve had that would’ve helped to bring justice to James and Amy. … I would like to address and thank my attorney, Gena Bunn. I’d like to thank my mom, Sylvia Cantu, Matt Duff, Mikal Frazier and, of course, Sister Helen.   

“I would especially like to thank Matt Duff for believing in me and digging deep and unraveling the case that he did to prove to the world that I do not belong on this gurney, to keep up the fight and to keep searching and doing what needs to be done to find all the answers and bring closure to the truth to the Kitchens and Mosqueda families. Last, I’d like to close by telling Mikal that I love her, and I will always be with her.” 

Along with MoveOn.org, Prejean had gathered and delivered over 140,000 petitions to Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis in McKinney, Texas, where Cantu was convicted. Celebrities Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Kim Kardashian and Jane Fonda had asked Gov. Greg Abbott to look at the new evidence discovered by investigator Matt Duff and revealed in his podcast “Cousins by Blood.”

Vital new evidence ignored

Cantu was convicted of killing his cousin and the cousin’s partner in 2000, but Duff uncovered new suspects, discovered new evidence and revealed the state’s two main witnesses lied, and the DA knew it. 

Sister Helen issued a statement on Feb. 29 on her Facebook page: “The state of Texas killed Ivan Cantu last night. I was there with him, standing near his face, holding his hand and praying into his ear until the chemicals killed him. … As I prayed with him, I promised him I would continue to tell his story so that through his passion and death, people’s hearts and minds will be awakened to the need to end the death penalty. 

“Today, February 29, I am spending the day with Ivan’s mother, Sylvia, herself a valiant, faith-filled woman. When word came to her of her son’s death last night, people with her could hear her loud, sustained wail of grief throughout the house. Now, along with the victims’ families, another mother mourns her dead child. … I return to New Orleans tomorrow. I will be glad to leave Texas, the biggest killing state in the nation.”

On her web page, Sister Helen wrote: “Although we did not save him, the spotlight we placed on the injustices in his case reverberated in the media both here and overseas. It is so rare to see such critical coverage of a Texas execution. Thanks to all of you who acted to try to save Ivan and to expose the flaws in Texas justice.” (SisterHelen.org)

By the time all the new information came out, several members of the convicting jury publicly said they were wrong to send Cantu to death row. The jury foreperson, Jeff Calhoun, wrote an opinion piece in the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 26 titled, “I helped put Ivan Cantu on death row. Now I feel like I was fooled.”

Calhoun spoke at a rally outside of the Collin County DA’s office on Feb. 22.

Abolish the racist death penalty!

Cantu was the 587th person executed in Texas since the death penalty was restored by the Supreme Court in 1976. The U.S. has executed 1,586 people since 1976. Out of this number, 1,293 were executed in former Confederate states. 

Cantu was not the first innocent person in Texas to be executed. The Death Penalty Information Center lists 10 people in Texas in a section of their web page called “Executed but possibly Innocent.” They are Carlos DeLuna, Ruben Cantu, David Spence, Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham), Claude Jones, Cameron Todd Willingham, Lester Bower, Richard Masterson, Robert Pruitt and Larry Swearingen. 

Others in Texas include Joseph Nichols, Frances Newton, Odell Barnes and Carlos Santana.

On Feb. 27, the Philadelphia DA’s office dismissed charges against 54-year-old Daniel Gwynn. He is the 197th person exonerated after being sentenced to death since 1973, according to DPIC’s Innocence Database.

In a press release issued on execution day by the Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement, activist Caleb Granger was quoted as saying, “It is appalling that no court will stop the haste of Texas to execute Ivan Cantu without even considering new evidence that has been discovered since his original trial. 

“From Cantu’s incompetent court-appointed attorney at trial, to the main witnesses giving perjured testimony, to the DA hiding evidence, we demand that this execution be stopped and a new trial be held. The racism in this system and the drive to kill by Texas is nothing short of criminal!”

Gloria Rubac

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Gloria Rubac

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