Published on Monday, November 21, 2005 by the Houston Chronicle (Texas)
Innocent Man Executed in Texas
by Lise Olsen
They were two teenagers who shared a deadly pact of silence: One grew up in prison tortured by a secret that might have stopped his friend's execution, and the other went to his death without revealing what he knew.
Ruben Cantu and David Garza's teenage bond was forged in the unforgiving streets on the south side of San Antonio, where the only rule they learned to respect was never to snitch.
When they were both arrested in 1985 for a neighborhood murder-robbery, Cantu, 17 at the time of the crime, insisted he was innocent and was condemned to die. Garza, 15, admitted guilt only to robbery — but not the murder — and got a deal.
Now, Garza has broken a 20-year silence with a surprising story that would appear to clear Cantu and implicate another man. Garza says he was with another neighborhood teen on Nov. 8, 1984, when they broke into a home, shot and killed one man, and seriously wounded another.
"Ruben Cantu had nothing to do with the murder, attempted murder and robbery of the two men at 605 Briggs Street. I should know," Garza wrote in a sworn statement obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
If his words are true, they provide some of the first evidence ever that the state of Texas wrongfully executed a man, who at the time of his crime was a juvenile.
Garza, currently serving a prison term at the Stiles Unit in Beaumont for an unrelated burglary, argues that his attempt to clear Cantu's name comes from a conscience long troubled by the betrayal of a best friend. Not once — from the murder trial to the day Cantu was executed — did Garza ever disclose who was with him inside the house on the night of the killing.
Garza said Cantu also knew the truth about who had done the killing because Garza confided in him two weeks after the murder. Still, Cantu was unwilling to betray friends even to save his own life, Garza said.
Even if Garza is lying, the Chronicle found other problems with Cantu's conviction, a case that was built almost entirely on the account of a lone eyewitness.
That eyewitness, Juan Moreno, was a 19-year-old illegal immigrant when, along with his friend, he was shot at least nine times during the Briggs Street robbery. Moreno survived; his friend did not.
Now, Moreno, the accuser and key witness, has joined Garza, the accused accomplice, in telling the Chronicle that Cantu was never at the murder scene.
"They put the blame on the wrong person," Moreno said. Cantu "was innocent. I am sure."
Both men insist they have no reason to lie.
Weaknesses in the systemGarza has immunity from further prosecution in the robbery-murder case based on his 1985 plea deal. However, he said he is taking a personal risk because as a member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, he also has pledged to uphold a code of silence.
"I've never snitched on nobody in my life," Garza said. "You've got a 17-year-old who went to his grave for something he didn't do. I don't get anything out of it. I can't get Ruben back. His mom lost a son."
The judge in Cantu's 1985 trial, Roy Barrera Jr., said he's shocked that no defense attorney ever re-interviewed Moreno or compelled Garza to testify during the eight years that Cantu's case moved through the appeals process as he sat on death row.
In a recent interview with the Chronicle, Barrera said the case underscores weaknesses in the system, especially in the "riskiest cases," which rely heavily on eyewitness identification. "People do lie under oath, and people do get convicted on the basis of lies," Barrera said. "This case, like thousands of other cases in the system across the country, cry for a thorough examination of the process."
Still, Barrera said he found it suspicious that Garza would speak out now despite having had "the responsibility and the opportunity and every reason for the number of years that his best friend stayed on death row."
"In my opinion, he failed to do it because what he told you is not true," said Barrera, who is now a defense attorney. He did it "because he has nothing better to do and he wants to put everybody on a guilt trip."
A month before Cantu's execution, Garza, who was incarcerated, did try to help Cantu, according to a 12-year-old letter obtained by the Chronicle.
"This case with Ruben is real messed up," he wrote to Cantu's attorney. "Hope to hear from you real soon ... "
A different teen?
Cantu's former attorney, Nancy Barohn, said Cantu claimed innocence, but never told her Garza had information that could help him. And Garza's last-minute letter offered no details, she said.
Yet Barohn, who represented Cantu for five years without pay, said she always believed the case against him was "dirty."
"I found the whole thing to be hideous — just vile," she said. "It's one of the worst experiences in my life." Knowing now that there were witnesses who might have helped her attempt to exonerate him only makes it worse, she said.
Ruben Cantu's father, Fidencio, who still lives in a tiny, rundown house near the murder scene, said the revelation comes too late to matter, but affirms what he has always believed about his son's death: "I think his friends killed him."
Garza said he considered Cantu his best friend. Both struggled in school at South San Antonio High and spent their time on the streets. They bonded in some of the roughest teenage rites: hunting, playing video games, doing drugs, joining a gang and stealing cars.
"Me and him would just do everything together. We were like bread and butter," Garza said.
But on the day of the murder, Garza said, another neighborhood teen went with him to commit robbery.
The other teen was once questioned as a suspect, but he denied any involvement. Interviewed by the Chronicle, that man, now 37, says he does not remember what he was doing the day of the murder, but insists he didn't kill anyone.
The Chronicle is not naming him because he has never been charged in connection with the crime.
The night of the slaying
This is Garza's account.
Garza said he first went to Cantu's house at 9:30 that night to see what he was doing, but Cantu's father told him he was gone.
Instead, Garza hooked up with another friend of Cantu's, also 17, whom he knew slightly. He said the two talked about robbing two Mexicans who were sleeping that night in a house under construction on Briggs Street. Garza said they believed the men were drug dealers. "The idea was to knock the guys out and take their money," Garza said.
The pair brought a .22-caliber rifle and a nightstick. Just before midnight, Garza opened a window in the house and they crawled through. Then both boys snuck into the front room where the two men were asleep on mattresses on the floor.
Garza hit one of the men with his nightstick and both woke up. But after they got a wallet from the older one, Pedro Gomez, he began to fight back, reaching for a gun under one of the mattresses. "That's when the shooting started," Garza said. Garza said he watched the older boy shoot Gomez, 25, in the head and keep on firing.
Then the shooter turned his rifle on Juan Moreno, fired nine more rounds, then picked up the .38-caliber revolver and fired more shots. "He just went crazy," Garza said.
As they fled, Garza said he figured both men had died. But then he said he saw Moreno staggering out of the house behind them, bloody but alive. "This guy didn't want to die. God wasn't ready for him," Garza said.
The two ran away, covered in blood, and returned to their separate houses to change. Garza said he threw his clothes in the trash. He said he doesn't know what happened to the rifle, which was never recovered.
Picked up for questioning
Quickly, police investigators focused on neighborhood teens, but Garza said he was shocked when police targeted Cantu, who had been away the day of the murder.
Within weeks, Cantu, Garza and the other teen were all separately picked up for questioning. Cantu and Garza refused to talk. But the other teen told police details about the murder that he claimed to know because Cantu had confessed only to him, according to police reports from 1984 and 1985.
He later claimed he spoke only after officers pushed him and threatened to charge him with capital murder, according to a sworn statement and an interview.
Despite that damaging statement, none of the three boys was arrested. For nearly three months, the investigation stalled.
Then Cantu shot an off-duty police officer at a neighborhood bar on March 1, 1985.
Detectives quickly arrested Cantu and reopened the murder investigation. Though the surviving victim, Moreno, had previously refused twice to identify Cantu, police finally obtained an identification and statement from him. Cantu was charged with capital murder. Within days, Moreno identified Garza, too.
Right before his arrest, Garza, then 15, was questioned alone without a parent and initially said he "had been there at the scene but stayed outside" and "saw Ruben come running out of the house," a detective wrote. Garza said the account is fabricated: He admits he told police that he waited outside during the robbery, but says he never named Cantu or anyone else. A San Antonio Police Department spokesman refused to allow the detective involved to comment.
But when prosecutors brought the case to trial, neither Garza nor the other teen was called to testify against Cantu. The state's capital murder case rested on the word of Moreno, a sympathetic and youthful witness who had barely survived his wounds.
'Running all my life'
Cantu, by then 18, was condemned to death; David Garza went to adult prison, initially for six years. The other teen moved out of state.
The third boy, who was an elementary school friend of Cantu's, recently moved back to San Antonio. He has always denied he had anything to do with the robbery and murder. His only criminal record appears to be a single misdemeanor domestic assault conviction.
But when the Chronicle located him two decades later, he said that he remains afraid to talk about the crime and fears retribution from Cantu's older brothers, both of whom are in prison.
"I've been running all my life. ... I can't stay in one place," he said. He has spent his adult life moving from place to place because he said Cantu's older brothers have repeatedly threatened him.
Not convinced it was CantuAnd though he still insists Cantu confessed to him, he also told the Chronicle that he was never convinced of Cantu's guilt.
"I don't think he did do it," he said.
A month before Cantu's execution in August 1993, Garza wrote directly to attorney Barohn, a former Missouri public defender who had never handled a capital case before she took on Cantu's appeals.
"That witness could not have identify Ruben nor I," Garza wrote. "The cops told him it was us. Ruben was not even around."
Barohn remembers that over the years Cantu himself also had repeatedly suggested that she go and visit Garza, whom he called his "alleged fall partner" in one letter.
But Barohn said Garza didn't seem willing to tell the truth. His letter implied he was not ready at the time to admit to his own role in the murder, though he had already pleaded guilty to robbery. Barohn had no money to pay an investigator to go see Garza and she was worried about meeting myriad deadlines for appeals and a petition for clemency to go herself.
As the date approached, Cantu and Barohn both took hope when Cantu's final appeal stalled for a while at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Briefly, Cantu's case had become intertwined with the highly-publicized case of Houston's Gary Graham, also accused of murder at the age of 17. Graham, like Cantu, had also been convicted on eyewitness identification. His appeal, like Cantu's, attacked the reliability of such evidence, especially an identification made after a few seconds of contact during a night-time robbery.
The Graham case also attacked the constitutionality of executing a juvenile - an argument that failed at the time.
With support from civil rights groups and movie stars, Graham received legal breaks that extended his life until 2000, when he was finally executed.
Cantu did not get that kind of time or attention.
As the execution date neared, Garza waited for Cantu's lawyer to visit with increasing anxiety. Garza said at that point he had realized that the only way to save Cantu was to tell her everything. But that was something he said he could not trust to a letter.
The only person Garza said he had ever previously confided in was Cantu himself. Garza said Cantu knew who really was involved, but was unwilling to betray friends.
``Me and Ruben (Cantu) had this oath that we would not snitch each other out. It was the honor that we had,'' explained Garza.
Another friend, Eloy Gonzales described Cantu this way: ``He wouldn't rat on nobody. He wouldn't rat on his worst enemy. You were always told you don't rat on your friends. But for that. He should have ratted on somebody.''
Even on the last day of his life, Cantu held out hope that he would be saved some other way: alibi witnesses would come forward or the courts would accept a legal argument about his youth or about flaws in the eyewitness identification, his mother and his lawyer said.
``He would tell you: `I can't be executed because I'm innocent.' '' Garza said.
Before the end came on August 24, 1993, Garza said he sent his friend one final letter - a homemade goodbye card that said: ``I'll see you on the other side. I wish it would have been different.''
Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle