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To Die a Free Man

Updated on March 29, 2017

10 Innocent People Wrongly Executed

Too little evidence too late

There are many things in life that most of us can admit to taking for granted. Some of us never think twice about hitting the snooze button every day when we wake up to go to work, or what about when we decide to take that extra, long hot shower on a chilly fall morning. Now I know most of us don’t even hesitate to think about stopping through the drive-thru of our favorite fast-food joint to get a nice greasy cheeseburger and fries. And I’m sure plenty of you can admit to cursing the snow on a cold winter day. But believe it or not, there are a special group of people (death row inmates) that would give anything to experience the simple pleasures in life just one last time before dying behind bars. Then there are the cases of innocent men who have been given the death penalty, only to never walk as free men again. In some cases, it wasn’t until after these men died that new evidence was brought about which proved their innocence. It is for these men and other reasons that I strongly feel that the death penalty is unjust. Death is the one thing in life that can never be undone, and even if you feel that someone has done you or another individual harm, killing them will never make your anger or pain go away.

For a young 17 year old man named Ruben Cantu of Texas, it was quite a shock to be arrested by the San Antonio cops one day for the murder of another man in a robbery gone wrong. Ruben was just a young man struggling with his family to survive in the crime ridden neighborhoods, called the barrio, of San Antonio. (Olsen, Houston Chronicle) Since his early teen years, Ruben had his close calls with the local cops as he and his fellow friends broke into and stole cars to get cash to go to Mexico, but Ruben was never convicted of a crime until his arrest for murder in 1985. (Olsen, Houston Chronicle) Ruben always maintained his innocence, and even sent a letter to the San Antonio residents on the day of his conviction stating simply: “My name is Ruben M. Cantu and I am only 18 years old. I got to the 9th grade and I have been framed in a capital murder case." (Olsen, Houston Chronicle) Ruben Cantu was sentenced as a juvenile offender to die by lethal injection, and so he did on August 24, 1993 just after midnight at the age of 26, only 8 short years after his conviction. (Benen, Washington Monthly) Even before Ruben died, many people started asking questions about his arrest. Issues arose when news broke that the police might have been trying to get payback against Ruben over a bar brawl in which Ruben had shot and injured a police officer a week prior, only to get released due to a technicality. (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org) Even outside of the police officers unethical actions, Ruben was convicted based almost solely on one person’s eyewitness testimony, and no physical evidence. Years later, that eye witness recanted his statement. In some ways though, Ruben was described by some to have been his own worst enemy since he refused to give the name of the real shooter, even until the day he died. Overall, no matter what way you look, Texas executed an innocent man that late August night in 1993. Some may say that Ruben Cantu got a fair trial by a jury of his peers. Others may say that it is only hearsay proving Cantu’s innocence. But there is no denying the reasonable doubt that exists in this case. Unfortunately, a man died before the truth could ever be found out.

Surprisingly so, Ruben Cantu is not the only innocent man or woman on record to have been sentenced and given the death penalty. In 1989, Carlos DeLuna was executed for a fatal stabbing; in 1995, Larry Griffin was executed for a drive-by shooting; in 1997, Joseph O’Dell was executed for murder and rape; in 1997, David Spence was executed for the murder of 3 teenagers; and in 1945, Lena Baker was executed for the murder of her employer. () All of these individuals declared their innocence until their death, but it wasn’t until after they died that new evidence showed they had not committed those crimes as previously stated. With examples such as these, no one would argue that the death of an innocent man or woman is defendable, but many still stand by the use of the death penalty anyways. Supporters for the death penalty view it as a just punishment for those, such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson, who have committed the most heinous of crimes. And once again, no one would argue against the notion that those criminals have committed such acts that deserve such a punishment, but the real question is: are we truly better off by killing those that kill others? Is there some better purpose that can be fulfilled by keeping them alive? What ethical duty are we bound to in the name of the victims of these criminals? Is capital punishment really just government sanctioned murder? All of these questions are ones that I believe should be considered when discussing the death penalty. It is not just a matter of a man’s guilt or innocence, but it is also a matter of ethics when we chose to act as the jury and executioner.

A key piece of evidence that the death penalty is considered to be in violation of basic human rights is the fact that “only four countries account for 90 percent of all executions in the world [as of] 2001”: the United States, China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. (Waller p.248) Other countries, such as Russia and South Africa, abolished capital punishment. (Waller p.248) “Since 1985, over 40 countries have abandoned capital punishment whereas only four countries that did not have it have adopted it.” (Waller p.248) When you step back and take a good look at the United States governmental views, you realize it is kind of hypocritical and ironic that our country enforces the death penalty. As the “only NATO country that still has the death penalty,” it is interesting how much time the United States spends on saving the lives of other individuals in other countries when they are so quick to end the lives of their own and others as well. (Waller p.248) For example, on one hand the United States spent a lot of time and effort making sure the Iraq people had a democratic state so every Iraq citizen earned the right to vote. The United States wanted to show Iraq citizens that our way governing was not just the better way but the more civil way. At the same time this effort was going on, the United States helped the Iraqi government put Saddam Hussein and his officers on trial for the crimes they committed against humanity and their country. All of them were hanged and thrown down “the trapdoor of a gallows in Kadhimiya Prison on the outskirts of Baghdad.” (Newsweek, Dickey) The saddest part of executions such as Saddam Hussein’s is that because the person who is being executed is so offensive we are unable to see that the joy that we partake in killing them is far more reprehensible than the crimes they committed. Author Christopher Dickey of a Newsweek article wrote: “Here, then, is the tragedy of America's involvement in Iraq, now and in the future: what Saddam achieved for his country came at a terrible cost, and of the countless problems he created and perpetuated, his death solves none.” (Newsweek, Dickey)

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But restating the obvious, “death solves nothing,” only bring us back to the beginning when discussing the problems with the death penalty. Proving the issues is more than about taking another person’s life. The fact is no human should be allowed to choose when to take another person’s life because no human is that impartial or unbiased. Imagine sitting there day after day listening to someone cry to you about how they lost someone they loved. Then imagine listening to a scientist tell you how the bullet from a gun used by a defendant killed a victim. Then picture a person you never met swearing up and down on the stand that the defendant is the person they saw from across the street shoot the young girl in cold blood. What will your verdict be? The reality is a jury or judge will tend to base their decisions in the courtroom more on emotion than on facts presented by the prosecution or defense. But a more frightening revelation is that the decision to file for the death penalty in the first place is left solely up the prosecution. (Waller p.250) In places like Houston and Philadelphia, “prosecutors sought the death penalty in virtually every case in which it [could] be imposed.” (Waller p.251) In places like Harris County, a section of Texas that includes Houston, there have been “more executions over 30 years than any other state, excluding Texas and Virginia.” (Waller p.251) With facts and statistics like these, one has to wonder if some prosecutors are enforcing the death penalty because it is the right thing to do, or because it is all they know how to do.

In southern states, like Texas, where morals and values are considered to be as great as God, it is ironic that they have become the leaders in the execution of the death penalty. In some ways the south is nothing like it was in years past. It is multicultural and extremely diverse in every form of its daily functions. There is no slavery, no segregation, and no riots. But yet, there still seems to be a tip in the scales in regards to criminal justice. “For example, there is not one African American or Hispanic judge on the nine-member Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the court of last resort for all criminal cases in that state.” (Waller p.251) Imagine what it would be like for a black man convicted of a crime and sentenced to death to appeal his conviction at the Texas Court. Besides the possible ethical violations (with abusive power implications dating back to the KKK), assigning judicial power to only one group of individuals can be disastrous. It is as if they operate behind a veil of ignorance. (Waller p.74) “In the 38 states that have the death penalty, 97.5 percent of the chief prosecutors are white,” and, in the south, “half of those sentenced to death are members of racial minorities.” (Waller p.251) Some say these statistics are just that: facts. Some would have you believe that because many minorities live in poverty or in a bad neighborhood, they are more likely to commit a crime than a white person. Maybe this is true and maybe it isn’t, but always assuming it is true is wrong. It is even worse to impose racial bias when making judicial and prosecutorial decisions.

Another major argument of proponents for capital punishment is “that people facing the death penalty should receive better legal representation,” but that might prove to be a little difficult since most charged with the death penalty are unable to afford a lawyer of their own and are assigned court-appointed lawyers instead. (Waller p.252) In addition, most of the time the representation they do receive is mediocre at best since the court-appointed lawyers are often over-worked and underpaid. What is even scarier is that sometimes the lawyer assigned to defend a death penalty case can be someone “who lacks the knowledge, skill, resources---and sometimes even the inclination---to handle a serious criminal case.” (Waller p.249) Not every person charged with a murder is going to get a team of class “A” lawyers like O.J. Simpson did. If that was the case, a lot more defendants would be found “not guilty” or sentenced to a lesser charge. Anyone who is old enough to remember the Simpson case knows that his attorneys where key in his verdict. They knew well enough to not just say Simpson was not guilty, but to also pick apart every piece of evidence the prosecution had. The lawyers were veterans and knew what mistakes not to make, and how to advise their client. Unfortunately, for men like Ruben Cantu (as previously mentioned), there was no group of class “A” lawyers to guide him through his trial. If there had been, one might have advised him that there could have been a way of proving his innocence without saying his friend was the real shooter. Instead, Ruben was convicted as a minor, and executed as a man.

Probably the biggest problem with the death penalty is who we are choosing to execute. Since in many cases people that are charged with a crime are issued court-appointed lawyers, the personal situations they face get overlooked. It is not uncommon for a homeless person or a mentally challenged individual to be convicted and sentenced to death. In an article posted by U.S. News & World Report, the author, Kit R. Roane, discusses this very problem. She talks about how the cops and courts blatantly know the homeless have no way of paying retribution for a crime, but yet they will still lock them up for it anyways. Roane states: “Without advocates, some poor defendants serve jail time longer than the law requires or plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit just to get out of jail. A few, as has been documented, receive the death penalty or life in prison because their court-appointed lawyers were incompetent, lazy, or both.” (U.S. News, Roane) Reading this makes me think of a homeless man that I see all the time. I often wonder what he has to do to survive, and I’m not ignorant to the fact that he may commit crimes. But I do realize he does not have the same capacity as others, since the survival laws of the street are different. As documented in the text, Consider Ethics, people with special needs can be easily influenced by the courts, and even talked into taking the death penalty. As with the case of Earl Washington, a mentally retarded man, he was first convicted and sentenced to death for a rape and murder. (Waller p.249) The governor of the state of Virginia realized it would be inhumane to sentence a mentally retarded man to death so he commuted his sentence to life without parole. (Waller p.249) In 2000, six years after his conviction, Washington was found innocent when new DNA evidence was brought to light. (Waller p.249) If it wasn’t for the new evidence, Washington most likely would have spent his life behind bars. His personality was described as “somewhat child-like,” which makes a person wonder how the police accepted his confession to begin with. (Waller p.249)

The word “child-like” brings us to the most innocent of victims of the death penalty: children. “The United States is part of a very small minority of nations that allow the execution of children.” (Waller p.248) We have become a nation that uses capital punishment as a way of enforcing role responsibility on our children. Proponents for capital punishment against minors argue it is not about whether the criminal is a child or not, but if they are showing moral accountability. They would say: “spare the rod and spoil the child.” (Bible) However, opponents to capital punishment discuss that children who commit crimes, even heinous ones, never truly understand their actions, since their brains and bodies are not fully developed. Because of this, a minor cannot be held fully accountable for their actions, no matter how severe. Yet somehow over 2,200 juveniles are currently serving life sentences without the possibility of parole in the United States. (U.S. News, Kingsbury) As recently as 2009, the Supreme Court as begun to review juvenile life and death sentences. Advocacy groups have fought hard to show that it is a human rights violation to sentence a minor to death. As one of only two countries to “not have ratified the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child,” the United States is not the leader they say they are for human rights, but rather an archaic follower. (Waller p.248) As stated in a U.S. News article, “at least 135 countries have expressly rejected life sentences for juveniles, according to Amnesty International.” (U.S. News, Kingsbury) It is also interesting to note that in 2005 “the high court ruled that the death penalty for minors was unconstitutional.” (U.S. News, Kingsbury) So why is it then that our country still believes on putting children and other incompetent individuals on death row?

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Perhaps a lot of the problem is what we are forced to see every day on the news. It appears that 80% percent of a news broadcast is about something negative, like war or a crime, leaving 10% for weather and 10% for traffic. It is no wonder that the American public is fed up with the crime they see day to day, but, even so, the death penalty is not the answer. I know that I have not come up with any clear alternative solution to the death penalty, other than life. The truth is I believe that answer alone should be good enough, along with the reasons show above. However, I understand that for many it is hard to accept that answer. People who have experienced death know how final it is. They know the pain, the hurt, and the anger. But watching someone die in return doesn’t make that go away. You will always miss your loved one, and hate the one who took them from you. Remember a convict sentenced to life will always miss those little things you have that they don’t: think of that next time you have McDonald’s.

References


  • Waller, B. (2008). Consider Ethics: Theory, Readings, and Contemporary Issues. New York: Youngstown State University.
  • Benen, S. (2005). “Political Animal.” Washington Monthly. Retrieved on October 3 , 2010 from www.washingtonmontly.com
  • Olsen, L. (2006). “The Cantu Case: Death and Doubt.” Houston Chronicle. Retrieved on October 3, 2010 from www.chron.com
  • “Executed but Possibly Innocent” (2010). Death Penalty Information Center. Retrieved on October 3, 2010 from www.deathpenaltyinfo.org
  • Dickey, C. (2007, January 8). Death of a Tyrant - He killed not only Kurds and Shiites but Baathist rivals. His end was ignominious. Newsweek. Retrieved October 15, 2010, from http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:AWNB:NWEC&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=1166B8B7D6C53558&svc_dat=InfoWeb:aggregated5&req_dat=4C58F5F42E564D44BD52216ADD385B97
  • Roane, K. (2006, January 23). When the Poor Go to Court - Across the nation, many indigents wind up being sentenced to jail time without ever seeing a lawyer. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved October 15, 2010 from http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:AWNB:UNWR&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=10F3AAB0E0EFAFB8&svc_dat=InfoWeb:aggregated5&req_dat=4C58F5F42E564D44BD52216ADD385B97
  • Kingsbury, A. (2009, November 11). Supreme Court Weighs Juvenile Life Sentences. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved October 15, 2010 from http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:AWNB:UNWR&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=12BF10BB95F89688&svc_dat=InfoWeb:aggregated5&req_dat=4C58F5F42E564D44BD52216ADD385B97
  • Kingsbury, A. (2009, October 2). Supreme Court to Decide Hot Button Issues. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved October 15, 2010 from http://docs.newsbank.com/openurl?ctx_ver=z39.88-2004&rft_id=info:sid/iw.newsbank.com:AWNB:UNWR&rft_val_format=info:ofi/fmt:kev:mtx:ctx&rft_dat=12B28AE78B006418&svc_dat=InfoWeb:aggregated5&req_dat=4C58F5F42E564D44BD52216ADD385B97

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