America’s next execution is scheduled for the end of the month, but a private investigator and relatives are fighting hard to stop it, claiming the death-row inmate due to be put to death in Texas was wrongly convicted.
Ivan Cantu, 50, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001 for the murder of his cousin James Mosqueda and his cousin’s fiancée Amy Kitchen, in November 2000.
Police found Mosqueda’s car outside Cantu’s apartment the day after the bodies were discovered, and bloodstained trousers matching the victim’s DNA in Cantu’s bin, according to court filings seen by the Texas Tribune.
Cantu has always maintained his innocence – he claims Mosqueda was a local drug dealer and was killed by a rival dealer to whom he owed money, and that this dealer then framed Cantu.
In 2022, Cantu’s execution was scheduled for 26 April, 2023. But the date was withdrawn by a Collin County judge after Gena Bunn, the defendant’s lawyer, filed an appeal outlining new evidence from a private, years-long investigation involving podcaster and investigator Matt Duff, 44.
On 23 August, however, a judge dismissed the new evidence on the grounds it was procedurally barred.
Mr Duff told i that the testimony of Amy Boettcher, the state’s star witness and Cantu’s fiancee at the time, had been cast into doubt after it emerged that she apparently lied on the stand.
Ms Boettcher’s brother, Jeff, had also claimed that Cantu had told him of plans to kill his cousin, but recanted his testimony in 2018, saying “he ‘lied’ and was not a credible witness due to his history of drug abuse”, court filings seen by the Texas Observer show.
Mr Duff, who exposed Cantu’s case in his Cousins by Blood podcast, said an independent ballistic examination had found issues with authorities’ claim that a firearm with Cantu’s fingerprints on its magazine was the one used to commit the murders.
While noting how he can’t have absolute certainty that Cantu is innocent, Mr Duff said there is enough new evidence to warrant at least a hearing as a “fact-finding mission” to see whether the case should go to retrial.
“At least give the guy a hearing before you kill him,” the private investigator said.
Cantu’s lawyer filed a new request with the court for the ballistic evidence to be reviewed, but this was denied, Mr Duff said, dealing a heavy blow to their case.
As noted by Amnesty International, two of the jurors signed affidavits in 2023 saying they wished for the new evidence to be considered by a court.
One of the jurors expressed “dismay” at “much of the testimony and evidence which I and the other jurors relied upon at the time of trial” now being in doubt.
He said: “I am now concerned that the state may be wrongfully putting a man to death based on my verdict.”
Cantu’s mother, Sylvia, 71, told i it has been an “emotional rollercoaster” since her son, then 28, was charged with capital murder after being arrested by Dallas Police 23 years ago.
“There was no evidence when Ivan was arrested… he was in my car, we were on our way to go see the late detective so Ivan could share the information that he knew,” Ms Cantu said.
“But as soon as he was arrested he was deemed guilty and so it’s been very difficult to see him in that situation and very painful.”
Mr Duff said his investigation into the case has also given him reason to suspect the police allegedly inserted facts into the star witness’s testimony. He also alleged they may have planted a bullet to frame Cantu as guilty. Dallas Police declined to comment.
i has contacted Collin County’s district attorney office for comment, including over Mr Duff’s claims that the prosecution essentially sought to stop Mr Boettcher from recanting his testimony.
i has also contacted the attorney general of texas for comment from the Criminal Appeals Division, as well as state governor Greg Abbott.
Kim Kardashian in January appealed to her followers to help Cantu get a hearing, saying she was “really moved” by his case.
Mr Duff claims the court ruling that the new evidence is procedurally barred reflects a “system seems set up to protect the conviction as opposed to, you know, serve justice”.
Burke Butler, executive director of the Texas Defender Service – a non-profit fighting to end the use of the death penalty in the state, criticised Cantu’s trial lawyers.
“The failure to call witnesses and generally to launch any concerted effort to investigate his actual innocence was incredibly negligent,” he was quoted saying in the Texas Observer: “These are really grave and serious failures.”
Mr Duff pointed to how in many cases, defendants who don’t have the means to pay for a private defence will get “stuck” with court-appointed lawyers giving “subpar” performances throughout, as in Cantu’s case.
“There’s problems with the justice system at every level,” he said, adding that by the time Cantu got a “good” lawyer who “actually wants to fight for him”, the evidence was ruled procedurally barred.
America’s death row came into the spotlight again last month when a convicted murderer in Alabama became the first inmate in the world to be executed with nitrogen gas. Human rights groups, United Nations torture experts and lawyers for Kenneth Eugene Smith had sought to prevent his execution, saying the method was risky, experimental and could lead to an agonising death or non-fatal injury.
Only three states – Alabama, Mississippi and Oklahoma – have authorised nitrogen hypoxia as an execution method, but other states were watching closely as lethal injection drugs are becoming harder to obtain due to the controversy around the death penalty.
Ms Cantu described the struggle for death-row inmates and their families trying to navigate the judicial system.
“The average person, you, me, Joe next door, you don’t know what to do, you don’t know how to navigate this system, it’s diabolical and it’s crazy.
“What would you do? You’ve been arrested, you’ve been charged with capital murder, now start talking. What do you start with? Who is going to listen to you?”
Ms Cantu said she was “horrified” by the thought of her son’s execution date being round the corner.
But she is keeping up the hope that Cantu will be saved by the new evidence.
“My birthday is on the 23rd of February, they want to execute Ivan on the 28th, that will not happen,” she said.