Archive for Saturday, December 3, 2005

Single case eclipses death penalty milestone

December 3, 2005


Welcome to the death watch.

As this was being written, the thousandth execution since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976 was scheduled for this morning at 2. North Carolina was to kill Kenneth Boyd for killing his estranged wife and father-in-law. In the unlikely event a reprieve intervenes between my writing and your reading, the thousandth execution will involve someone else, somewhere else. That the macabre milestone will come, however, is beyond question. It's just a matter of time.

One thousand is one of those numbers that inevitably gets media attention. It's big and round and carries the weight of milestone. But I think we're concentrating on the wrong numerical signpost here. We are obsessing on the thousand. How about sparing a word or two for the one?

As in, the first person definitively proven to have been wrongly executed. The first innocent known to have been put to death in your name and mine.

That milestone may be upon us. The Houston Chronicle reported in November that Texas probably got it wrong when it killed Ruben Cantu in 1993. Cantu, of San Antonio, was 17 in 1984 when he was arrested and charged with murder. Prosecutors said the boy shot and killed a man in the commission of a robbery. He was convicted based on the testimony of two men: one, who was shot during the holdup, was the sole witness to the crime; the other was Cantu's alleged partner.

The witness now says it wasn't Cantu who shot him and that he only said otherwise after being pressured to do so by authorities. And Cantu's supposed partner has signed an affidavit saying he lied when he claimed Cantu was with him that night.

Unfortunately, this attack of conscience comes 12 years too late. Cantu was put to death - again, in your name and mine - at age 26, proclaiming his innocence till the end.

To his credit, Sam Millsap Jr., the district attorney who decided to seek the death penalty, told the Chronicle he made a mistake in doing so. To his discredit, San Antonio Police Sgt. Bill Ewell, the now retired cop who ran the investigation, refused to admit to any such error. "I'm confident the right people were prosecuted," he said.

Which is disappointing, but then, what would you expect him to say?


An admission of error would require moral courage, and among proponents of capital punishment, that is a commodity in short supply.

Moral courage would require us to look at the thing straight on, to acknowledge how flawed and capricious is this custom of killing people we judge guilty of crime. Better to maintain the conscience-salving fiction that in this undertaking, unlike every other field of human endeavor, we do not make mistakes.

Or when that fails, offer the twisted rationalization I hear sometimes from readers and friends. Concede that we sometimes get it wrong but argue that getting it wrong, while lamentable, somehow serves a greater good.

Whenever someone says that, I am struck by how generous he or she is willing to be with someone else's life.

Maybe that's why the news about Ruben Cantu slipped by largely unremarked. Maybe it is too on-point, too close to the bone, speaks too directly to the hypocrisies we are willing to tolerate in the name of preserving righteousness or the illusion thereof.

The death penalty makes us experts at ignoring post-mortem doubts.

But eventually, there will come a case that cannot be ignored, a case too stark and definitive. And I wonder if people will still so willingly accept the idea that killing the occasional innocent is just something we'll have to live with. Or if they will finally choke down a truth as obvious as it is disregarded:

That stuff's easy to say so long as you're not the one being killed.

- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.


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