Former District Attorney Sam Milsap Admits "I Made a Mistake" in Death Penalty Prosecution - 16 Years after Execution

People wonder why I am so adamently opposed to the death penalty, and then stories like this appear in the media and I, in turn, wonder how anyone can support capital punishment. 

Sam Milsap's Mea Culpa

Sam Milsap is a seasoned criminal lawyer with over 30 years experience, and for a long while he served as the head District Attorney of Bexar County, Texas (better known to most of us as the location of the city of San Antonio).  Last week, Mr. Milsap was a guest speaker in Topeka, Kansas, where the annual meeting of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty was being held.  And during his speech to this formidable group, Sam Milsap did a brave thing.  He admitted he was wrong.

Milsap explained from the podium that back in the early 1990s, he was in charge of prosecuting a young man named Ruben Montoya Cantu.  In his zeal to win -- something that every criminal defense attorney recognizes in ambitious, driven DAs -- Sam Milsap charged ahead in his case, and with only the testimony of one single eyewitness, he obtained a guilty verdict and a sentence of death for Mr. Cantu in the murder of Pedro Gomez. 

That's right.  No physical evidence.  None.  No admission of guilt from Cantu.  None.  Only the finger-pointing from one man -- Juan Moreno, who had been shot alongside Gomez as they were being robbed.   (Nevermind that the co-defendant said that 17 year old Ruben Cantu wasn't there at the time.)

Much has been written about the weakness of eyewitness testimony, so it should come as a surprise to no one when years later, Moreno changed his mind.  That's right:  the eyewitness recanted.

Or, as Milsap so eloquently described it, " ' 20 years later, my star witness says, ' I lied.'"

The Danger of Zealous Prosecutors in Death Penalty Cases

Sam Milsap must be given his due for not hanging out a "gone fishing" sign, but instead using his time and energy to do things like appear at the KCADP national conference to tell the story of how his vigorous efforts put a 17 year old to death by lethal execution in Texas.  That is a good thing, and every district attorney in the country should hear what Sam Milsap has to say.

Meanwhile, all of us must be aware of the temptations of prosecutors everywhere -- to win their case.  To acheive a personal victory, to pursue a reputation as an advocate as well as doing the job that is assigned to them.  In our criminal justice system, prosecutors have the role of proving up a case against a criminal defendant -- and if capital punishment is on the table, it's their job to try and prove its applicability in certain cases.

As Sam Milsap's story teaches, the danger here is that when a prosecutor makes a serious mistake, and the death penalty is involved, the consequences are too high.  That teenager in San Antonio is dead today, and no one can fix that -- although, from the sound of Mr. Milsap's speech last weekend, no one would like the opportunity to do so more than he. 

Cameron Todd Willingham and John Grisham's The Innocent Man

John Grisham chose a story about the death penalty for his first non-fiction novel, and it's well worth the read.  The Innocent Man: Murder and Injustice in a Small Town, has been out for awhile -- so long in fact, that you can buy a used copy on Amazon for a buck ninety-nine ($1.99).   It's particularly compelling in light of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham -- an innocent man executed by the State of Texas with scientific evidence recently proving his innocence.

What's Grisham's book about?

It's a true story, which began over 25 years ago when a young cocktail waitress was raped and murdered, and the crime remained unsolved for 5 years.  All this time, the authorities believed that two specific men were responsible, and after these five years had passed, they ended up arresting the two guys, Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz, for murder. 

They had no physical evidence.  The case went to a jury based solely on junk science and the testimony of a convict or two.  Ron Williamson was sent to death row; his pal got life in prison.

Eerie to read, as you ponder the Willingham case....

Media Coverage Increasing On the Story of Cameron Todd Willingham - Another Innocent Man Executed

Apparently, Cy Vance's great article in HuffPo on the tragic story of Cameron Todd Willingham (see last week's post) was just the start.  More and more stories are appearing across the country, covering the brutal fact that a man was killed by the State of Texas for the arson murder of his children and only after his death did scientific evidence substantiate what Willingham had been claiming the whole time:  it wasn't arson.  He didn't commit murder.  Specifically, he did not commit filicide.

Several of these writings deserve your time, particularly:

The op-ed piece in yesterday's New York Times, written by Bob Herbert, where he writes:

"... The report is devastating, the kind of disclosure that should send a tremor through one's conscience. There was absolutely no scientific basis for determining that the fire was arson, said [arson expert Craig] Beyler. No basis at all...."

The response by editor Michael Landauer in the Dallas Morning News to the statements made by the prosecutor in the Willingham case (who is now a sitting judge in Texas):

"Well, he was a foul-mouthed wife beater.  That seems to be the response of the chief prosecutor of the Willingham case...."

And, the long, in-depth investigative piece by in the New Yorker, which goes into great detail and obviously took great effort both in investigation, research, and writing, published this month and written by David Grann, who provides Cameron Todd Williingham's last words:

"...'The only statement I want to make is that I am an innocent man convicted of a crime I did not commit. I have been persecuted for twelve years for something I did not do. From God's dust I came and to dust I will return, so the Earth shall become my throne.' "

This coverage is important and the more discussion is had in this country regarding the tragedy of Cameron Todd Willingham's case, the better.  One can only wonder why it took from 2004, when Willingham was executed until now -- five years later -- for this travesty to come into the national spotlight.

Let's all hope that somehow, this brings some peace to the Willingham family.  The arson was a terrible accident.  Those babies did not die at the hand of their father, and this confirmation should bring some relief to these folk. 

The injustice of the execution?  Our prayers and our compassion go out to them as they deal with this reality. 

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