Texas man on death row says execution this month would be 'for a crime I didn't commit'

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WEST LIVINGSTON, Texas ― Ivan Cantu is aware that he’s running out of time. He clings to the black phone receiver at the prison and fights to make himself heard before a world that 24 years ago sentenced him to death for two murders that, he claims, he didn’t commit.

“From the first day — everything was there to investigate the case and prove my innocence. But when I explained it, they didn’t believe me,” Cantu said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit prison in West Livingston, about 80 miles north of Houston. The prison houses 2,937 prisoners and at least 180 of them, like Cantu, are awaiting execution.

Cantu, who was born in Dallas 50 years ago, was sentenced to death in October 2001. After two postponements in 2012 and 2023, his execution by lethal injection is scheduled for Feb. 28 barring a last-minute appeal.

“I often think about that because I don’t want to die,” he said, “it’s just days before they want to put me on a stretcher [to receive a  lethal injection] for a crime I didn’t commit — we’re doing our best to present the information to the courts, but it’s like they don’t care.”

Cantu was found guilty by a jury of the murder of his cousin, James Mosqueda, 27, and Amy Kitchen, Mosqueda’s 22-year-old fiancée. Both were shot to death in north Dallas on Nov. 3, 2000, the sentencing determined. Cantu was 28 years old at the time.

The jury ruled unanimously in 2001 that the accusation against him was irrefutable and he was sentenced to die by lethal injection.

In the years since his conviction, Cantu’s attorney, Gena Bunn, who has represented him pro bono for 15 years, private investigators and an independent podcast producer have said they’ve found evidence that they believe discredits the testimony of the main prosecution witness — Amy Boettcher, Cantu’s ex-fiancée — and casts doubts on his guilt.

Cantu’s case has attracted public attention and thousands of people have signed an online petition for his release. Celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Martin Sheen and Jane Fonda, and organizations such as Amnesty International have advocated for Cantu’s sentence to be revised.

death row inmate (Noticias Telemundo)
death row inmate (Noticias Telemundo)

“There are doubts about his legal representation at trial, the testimony of the state’s main witness and the evidence,” said Mary Kapron, a researcher for Amnesty International. “We have seen that several people on the jury have come out saying that they also have doubts about whether he is really guilty or not in the case.”

However, no court has so far agreed to analyze the new information and evidence.

In April 2023, after a last-minute defense appeal, Collin County District Judge Benjamin Smith, a Republican, ordered a pause to the execution just seven days before it was supposed to take place. But the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals four months later rejected a request for an evidentiary hearing and a new execution date was set for Feb. 28.

Cantu will be executed unless the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles accepts his request for a hearing or the governor, Republican Greg Abbott, decides to halt the execution.

‘It’s not fair’

Cantu, a man with a thin build, was the only inmate at the prison’s visiting area on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. A thick glass separated him from the Noticias Telemundo journalists as he sat in a tiny white booth with a padlocked metal fence behind him, as several guards watched him.

“I am against the death penalty, it’s not fair,” Cantu said. “Each and every situation is different. From a human point of view, how do you prove that killing is wrong? By killing people?”

“If you look at the evidence, you will clearly know that I didn’t commit the crime,” he said, as he looked at the walls painted with murals of Sonic and Cookie Monster and the vending machines full of soda and candy on the visitors’ side, away from his reach.

Dressed in standard prisoner attire, Cantu speaks quickly into the prison phone. Aware that he has no time to waste — the jail granted a one-hour interview — he provided precise details on events that took place decades ago as if he had gone over them in his head over and over again.

“I’m on the other side of this window because the District Attorney’s Office did not fully investigate my case. And when the Dallas Police Department presented them with the documents and the false witness statements and the false narrative, they took it at face value, they didn’t investigate it. They presented the information to a jury and asked them to convict me. And they did,” Cantu said.

“I must do everything I can to keep my head busy and functioning, whether it’s writing letters, reading books or staying on top of my case to keep my mind from deteriorating and help my team unravel my wrongful conviction and get me home,” he said.

The prosecution’s case against Cantu

The car belonging to his slain cousin, James Mosqueda, a Chevrolet Corvette, was found parked outside the apartment Cantu shared with his fiancée, Amy Boettcher, just over a mile from the crime scene. According to police records from Nov. 7, jeans and socks with drops of blood from the victims were found in Cantu’s kitchen trash can. Boettcher told police that he had committed the murders.

“Amy lied,” Cantu said, “she even went so far as to say that I took her to the crime scene to see the bodies. And that is not true.”

Cantu said that the time of death was not investigated; the initial reports said it had been on Nov. 3 but reports prepared by forensic experts hired by his attorneys after his conviction show that the deaths occurred on the morning of Nov. 4. That day, Cantu was in Arkansas, visiting his fiancee’s family.

These reports were submitted in his clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on Feb. 6.

Before the trial, almost a quarter of a century ago, Cantu’s state-assigned lawyers didn’t ask for an investigator to be appointed to the case, so it was up to them to examine the witnesses and the evidence presented by the prosecution. Cantu’s attorneys didn’t ask for the help of an expert in DNA, ballistics, fingerprint examination, blood spatter or forensic medicine, as prosecutors did. His attorneys also didn’t call any witnesses and they didn’t question the medical examiner, according to the petition for clemency.

In his trial’s closing argument, Cantu’s attorney admitted his client’s guilt against his wishes; Cantu interrupted the trial and then asked the judge if he could represent himself, legal documents show, but his request was denied.

“They said I wasn’t worthy of a life sentence and decided to schedule me for execution,” Cantu said, “but today the jury foreman, along with a couple of other jurors, have come forward and made sworn statements for my appeal saying that, with what they know today and the information that has come to light and with the lies that we have been able to prove from witnesses or even the police department, they would not have convicted me. And they certainly would not have sentenced me to death.”

Questioning the case against Cantu

The bodies of James Mosqueda and Amy Kitchen were found on Nov. 4, 2000, with multiple gunshot wounds, but police did not find a weapon in their home. Mosqueda was a drug trafficker, according to the prosecutor’s office, and Kitchen was a nursing student; they had gotten engaged a few months before. Police said items were missing from the home, including Mosqueda’s Rolex watch and Kitchen's engagement ring.

But Cantu’s legal team claims to have found evidence that casts doubt on his guilt. An agent who went with Cantu’s mother to carry out a preliminary check of his home after the murders stated there were no bloody clothes in the trash can. Boettcher had said the bloody pants were Cantu’s, but they were size 34/32 and Cantu claims that his size was 30/30.

Boettcher also claimed that on the night of the murders she saw Cantu wearing Mosqueda’s Rolex, but in 2019, Cantu’s father, Abner Cantu, said he discovered that the brother of Mosqueda’s fiancée took that watch from the crime scene and handed it over to the police, who had returned it to Mosqueda’s mother.

Boettcher further testified that, on the night of the crime, Cantu asked her to marry him and gave her a diamond ring that she later learned was the one Mosqueda gave to his fiancée. But witnesses found by Cantu’s lawyer say that Boettcher already had a ring a week before the crime.

Boettcher’s brother, Jeff Boettcher, testified at the trial that Cantu had told him he planned to kill Mosqueda and had tried to recruit him to “clean up” after the murder. But in 2022, a year after his sister Amy died at the age of 44, Jeff Boettcher recanted his testimony, claiming he had been under the influence of drugs and that the conversation “never happened.”

20 hours a day in his cell

On death row, prisoners spend between 20 and 22 hours a day locked in their cell. Recreation days “are limited,” explains Cantu, who appreciates when he can go out of his cell or get some fresh air. Communication with his family or his lawyer “was very limited for years,” he said, despite being “key and necessary.”

The security rules are extreme. “Because I’m on death row, everywhere I go I’m handcuffed, unless I’m in my cell or a smaller cage like this,” he said. Taking a shower, receiving visitors or even going to the doctor is a respite because it allows him to walk and thus stretch his legs, he said.

“Describing this place where I have been for the last 23 years is not easy. I live in a small cell away from my friends and family, and my recreation is limited. Contact with people is limited. But I take it day by day,” he said.

In January 2023, a group of prisoners filed a lawsuit in federal court in Houston, still unresolved, alleging that isolation deprives them of their right to access medical and legal care, causes them serious physical and psychological harm, and violates the Eighth  Amendment to the Constitution against cruel and unusual punishment.

At least eight death row inmates in the state have committed suicide in the last 20 years, according to prison records consulted by The Texas Tribune. The most recent took place on Jan. 21, when Terence Andrus, 34, was found in his cell.

“The tide is changing, little by little,” Cantu said, adding that a few weeks ago they began a pilot plan to allow death row inmates to participate in group recreation; he thinks the lawsuit was necessary to get it started.

‘Ivan did not have a fair trial’

Matt Duff launched his podcast about the Cantu case, “Cousins by Blood,” in 2020.

“Most of the accusations came from his girlfriend at the time, Amy Boettcher,” Duff told Noticias Telemundo. “Her version was taken as fact by the court. But her story seemed ridiculous to me. Over time, we have been able to prove that the state’s star witness gave fraudulent testimony.”

Duff said his investigations don’t prove that Cantu is innocent, only that, in his opinion, there were irregularities in his trial. “We can show that Ivan did not have a fair trial,” Duff said.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has historically not been receptive to petitions from convicts, does not inspire much hope in Cantu.

“I’m calling on the Collin County prosecutor; the governor, [Greg] Abbott; and to the whole world: I’m not asking for anything special, just what I’m entitled to by law. I want to be given a fair day in court, with a lawyer who knows what she’s doing and how to present the case, so we can prove my innocence and unravel my unjust conviction.”

Noticias Telemundo contacted the Collin County Prosecutor’s Office about the case and a spokesperson responded, via email, that its policy is “not to comment on any criminal case pending in court.” The Dallas Police Department also had no comment.

The families of James Mosqueda and Amy Kitchen declined to comment, but on a Facebook post on Feb. 2, Kitchen’s family wrote that they hoped that there is finally “justice” for Amy and James and for the execution to take place.

‘They’re also my family’

As his execution date approaches, Cantu said he thinks of the victims’ families’ pain and anguish: “They are also my family, all of this is very sad. I think about them because James was my cousin, we grew up together. There are so many memories, our lives were cut short. The whole family needs to know the truth. They assumed the prosecution and the police were being honest and sincere, but they weren’t. We all need justice.”

Texas is the state with the most executions in the country: 586 since 1976. In 2023, eight inmates were executed. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973 at least 196 people sentenced to death were exonerated in the U.S., 16 of them in Texas.

Clemente Aguirre, a Honduran who spent more than 10 years on death row in Florida for the death of a woman and her daughter, was released in 2018 thanks to DNA testing.

“I am not saying that this man is innocent, I am not saying that he did not do it. What I am saying is that there are many things wrong in his case, what is the fear of giving him a new trial?” Aguirre said  about Cantu.

As his execution date nears, Cantu spoke of what he hopes he can do someday. “I just want to hug my mother, spend time with her and my brother, travel with them somewhere. Family is the most important thing and I have been away for more than 20 years, without being able to touch anyone. That is the worst sentence.”

“I have a wonderful mother,” he said, “but this situation has broken her heart. Furthermore, financially and spiritually it has broken us. I feel desperate, helpless for them. But I know that it is only a matter of time — if they give me a new trial, we can prove my innocence and they will take me home.”

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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This article was originally published on NBCNews.com