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.