Friday, August 13, 2010

Speaking Out Against the Death Penalty While Honoring and Remembering Peter Cantu's Murder Victims Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña

Peter Cantu is scheduled for execution in Texas Tuesday  August 17. He will be the 16th person executed in Texas this year and the 224th person under Texas Governor Rick Perry. You can click here to write Governor Rick Perry to protest this execution or leave him a message at 512 463 1782.

On Monday, a few members of Texas Students Against the Death Penalty will join Texas Moratorium Network to speak out against the death penalty at a press conference in Houston regarding the execution of Peter Cantu for his part in the murders of two teenage girls, Jennifer Ertman (14) and Elizabeth Peña (16), who attended Waltrip High School in Houston and were walking home alone one night in 1993. The girls were gang raped, beaten and strangled in an attack that shocked Houston and attracted national attention for its brutality. 

We want to honor and remember the two young girls who were murdered, Elizabeth Peña and Jennifer Ertman, so we plan to bring some flowers donated by our members to put on the memorial to the girls that stands on the grounds of Waltrip High School in Houston (see picture).

We will be joined at the press conference, which is Monday at 10am outside Waltrip High School in Houston, by Ron Carlson whose sister, Deborah Ruth Carlson Davis Thornton, and Jerry Lynn Dean were murdered with a pick ax by Karla Faye Tucker and Daniel Ryan Garrett on June 13, 1983. The Texas Death Penalty Abolition Movement is co-sponsoring the press conference with us. Thanks to Gloria Rubac for organizing it.

The message we will deliver in Houston on Monday and Huntsville on Tuesday is not only that many Texans believe that the death penalty is unjust in all cases no matter how heinous the crime, even one as horrific as this one; but that even in cases in which the guilt of the offenders in not in question, Texas does not have the moral authority to continue executing people as long as the system puts innocent people at risk of execution, as it did in the Todd Willingham case. A state that has executed an innocent person is a state that has lost the moral authority to execute any person, including Peter Cantu.

It is far better to commute every death sentence to life in prison, than it is to operate a system that has executed even one innocent person. That is why the State of Texas is so afraid to admit that Todd Willingham was innocent. Nevertheless, it was an important step on the continuing road to his exoneration when the Texas Forensic Science Commission announced their tentative findings at their meeting in Houston on July 23 that the science used to convict Willingham was “seriously flawed”.

Peter Cantu, who is set for execution next Tuesday, was born in Austin and moved with his family to Houston when he was four and a half. He is 12 years younger than TMN’s president Scott Cobb, but Cantu attended the same Garden Oaks Elementary School and F.M. Black Middle School in Houston as Scott. However Cantu was held back three times to repeat grades and eventually got sent to an alternative school from which he dropped out, while Scott went on to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin.

TMN’s Scott Cobb is also a graduate of Waltrip High School, the same school the girls were attending in 1993. So Scott and the others from TMN will be returning to Scott’s old neighborhood to engage the community in a discussion on the death penalty and the need for a moratorium on executions. The point will be to say there is another way besides the death penalty that punishes offenders and protects society. Also if society wants to reduce gang violence there are other ways to do that besides using the death penalty, which has no deterrent effect. For instance, you can invest more in schools and raise the graduation rate.

The crime for which Peter Cantu is being executed on August 17 was committed in 1993 when he and two of his accomplices were barely 18, when two other of his accomplices were still 17, and when one was only 14.

A Justice Department report in 1999 showed substantial drops from the peak years to 1999 in the juvenile arrest rates for crimes tracked by the FBI: Murder by juveniles was down 68 percent from 1993 to 1999, to the lowest level since 1966.

This shows that sound public policies, such as after school programs, community investment and early intervention programs that are smart on crime can reduce crime by young people and can prevent people from committing serious crimes like murder and also can prevent innocent people from becoming victims of crimes.

Peter Cantu and his accomplices committed their crime in 1993 during the peak of the juvenile murder rate. Since then, policies have been implemented that have decreased crimes by juveniles. And executions by offenders younger than 18 have been banned.

If public policy can influence crime rates, then can we really execute people who committed their crimes at 18 or younger in a time before we had implemented the type of smart on crime policies that could have prevented those young people from growing up to commit serious crimes at 14, 17 and 18. A child who drops out of school is a sign of a failure of public policy. A child who becomes a criminal has been failed by society.

We should not subject a teen offender to the death penalty if we were complicit as a society in their growing up in the environment that made them into criminals when it was within our power to create the public policies that could have prevented their criminality.

Why are there so many people on death row who dropped out of school, some as early as 7th to 9th grade? We failed in our responsibility, especially in the early 90s, to create a society of equal opportunity, so we should not execute any people who committed crimes as teens because they failed because of our failures.

There were 446 murders in Houston in 1993 in a population of 1,724,327.

There were 281 murders within Houston's city limit in 2009, as of late in the day of Dec 31, 2009. The final numbers for 2009 may have been a few higher, but we don't have them right now.

There were substantially more people living in Houston in 2009 compared to 1993. As of the 2009 U.S. Census estimate, the city had a population of 2.3 million.

The Gang Reduction Program of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention was not even initiated until 2003, ten years after the gang murders of 1993 for which Cantu is being executed.

Here is a quote from a 2003 report from the U.S. Dept of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention: "Experience has shown us that gangs are, in part, a response to community dysfunction. Thus, a primary focus of OJJDP’s anti-gang initiatives is to support community efforts to provide their citizens, especially their young people, with a safe and prosocial environment in which to live and grow. Gangs often lure youth with the promise of safety, belonging, economic opportunity, and a sense of identity. OJJDP is dedicated to helping communities replace this false promise with real opportunities for our Nation’s youth."

The Houston neighborhoods in which Cantu and his accomplices grew up could certainly be described as a dysfunctional community in the late 80s and early 1990s, so how can we execute someone who became a teen criminal in that environment, when there is the alternative of life in prison without parole. 

There were six people convicted for participating in the murders of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Peña. In 2006, Derrick O'Brien became the first of the gang members executed in this case. Jose Medellin was executed in 2008. Peter Cantu, O’Brien and Medellin were all 18 at the time of the murders. Two other accomplices, Efrain Perez and Raul Villarreal, who were both 17 at the time of the killings, had their death sentences commuted to life in prison in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that executing people who committed crimes under the age of 18 is banned by the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

Jose Medellin's brother, Vernancio, who was 14 at the time, is serving a 40-year prison term for his role in the crime.


dudleysharp said...

Texas will not admit that Willingham was an innocent executed because to do so would be irresponsible and false.

"Cameron Todd Willingham: Another Media Meltdown", A Collection of Articles

Other examples:

"The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents"

"The 130 (now 139) death row 'innocents' scam"

"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

Anonymous said...

The Texas Forensic Science Commission has said that the forensic science used to convict Willingham was flawed, so at this point most everyone should be able to say that it is possible that Willingham was innocent. If the evidence had been properly analysed at the time of the crime, then it is unlikely that a jury would have convicted him, even though the DA thought he was some sort of devil worshipper.

A death penalty system should be 100 percent certain that the person being executed is not innocent. Texans can no longer be 100 percent sure that Willingham was guilty, therefore all executions should be stopped.

dudleysharp said...

First, innocents are more at risk without the death penalty.

Therefore, your solution will result in more innocents dead.

"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

Secondly, would you ban all government and private enterprises that result in innocents deaths?

For example, we let's look at the government supervised probations, paroles and other early releases of criminals. We are knowingly releasing bad folks "under supervision" onto an innocent public.

Likely, 100,000 innocents have been murdered by those under such superviosin since 1973, in the US. (1)

The number of proven innocents executed in the US since 1900? Zero.

Thirdly, with the conflicting forensics, there is no reason to believe that the Willingham wouldn't have been like many other cases, criminal and civil, in that there will be dueling experts who have come to very different conclusions.

For example, the Texas Fire Marshall's office stated, last October, that in light of the newer, critical forensics resports, that the TFM would be supporting their experts finding that the fire was arson.

So, I think we need to wait for their report, as well as any others which may be forthcoming, if any.

Fourth, given that, as well as the other evidence given at trial, plus other evidence very supportive of guilt, I think it still very likley Willingham would have been convicted and sentenced to death.

1) "Prisons are a bargain, by any measure"