What I learned about the US death penalty from the next man to be executed

<span>Ivan Cantu is interviewed by a reporter in the visitation room of the Polunsky Unit on 31 January.</span><span>Photograph: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune</span>
Ivan Cantu is interviewed by a reporter in the visitation room of the Polunsky Unit on 31 January.Photograph: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune

I’ve known Ivan Cantu for 20 years. I also know the day he is due to die. Cantu, 50, has been on death row since 2001. I first met him a few years later when I moved to Texas from England. In the two decades I’ve covered the death penalty in the US, Cantu has helped me understand what inmates go through in one of the America’s most notorious prisons, and his own story of how he got there – a story that, if his execution goes ahead, will end on Wednesday at 6pm.

That story is complicated. Cantu was convicted of killing his cousin and his cousin’s fiancée in November 2000 as a result of a drug dispute. But he’s always denied it. There was no physical evidence proving he was at the crime scene – no fingerprints, shoe prints, DNA. And he was hundreds of miles away at his fiancée’s parents’ house in Arkansas when the bodies of James Mosqueda, 27, and Amy Kitchen, 22, were discovered in their Dallas home, riddled with bullets. Yet Cantu’s jeans and socks, which police found in his rubbish bin, had the victims’ blood on them, and Cantu’s fiancée, Amy Boettcher, told police he had shown her the bodies.

Cantu, meanwhile, said that a couple of days before the murders, someone dressed as a pizza delivery person turned up at his apartment claiming Mosqueda owed him money, before firing a bullet into the wall. Boettcher said Cantu shot the wall during a heated argument.

During his trial, Cantu’s lawyer did not call any witnesses in his defence, and before the jury considered its verdict, he all but told them his client was responsible: “I didn’t say he was innocent,” he said. “I said he’s not guilty of capital murder” – a legal distinction he hoped would save Cantu from a death sentence. It didn’t.

Gena Bunn, his appellate lawyer, said new evidence cast “grave doubt” on his conviction. This involved testimony from a police officer indicating the jeans and socks could have been placed in the rubbish bin after Cantu left for Arkansas, and that those jeans were at least two sizes too big for him anyway. In 2009, testing on the clothing failed to show conclusively that Cantu’s DNA was even on them.

Last year, a judge withdrew a prior execution date for Cantu after a filing by Bunn said Amy Boettcher, who died in 2021, made false statements during the trial; she claimed Cantu had stolen a Rolex watch from the murder scene, but police later found it inside Mosqueda’s home. In addition, Boettcher’s brother, Jeff, recanted testimony he made accusing Cantu of telling him he planned the murders. Jeff Boettcher blamed his history of drug abuse for lying in court. But all Cantu’s appeals have been rejected.

It’s doubtful we’ll ever know the truth, and certainly not before the state administers a lethal dose of pentobarbital on 28 February.

I’ve been to Texas death row more times than I can recall. It is housed at the Polunsky Unit in the east Texas town of Livingston, an hour north of Houston. If you live there, you either work for the prison or the logging industry. From the main highway, you take a quiet ranch road through pine woods, past a scattering of small homes and trailers and a barbecue restaurant popular with corrections officers and prison visitors, until the imposing concrete fortress emerges out of nowhere as you round a bend.

This is death row, but inmates aren’t executed there. On the day a condemned man dies (women are housed at a different facility), he is taken by van from Livingston 40 miles west to a prison in Huntsville which houses the state’s execution chamber. It’s nicknamed “The Walls” unit on account of its red-brick enclosure. It’s no small irony that the journey between the two prisons is one of the most beautiful in Texas, along rolling hills, past lush farmland, and over a bridge dividing Lake Livingston in two.

I wrote and directed a short, animated film about it once called The Last 40 Miles.

The first story I wrote about the death penalty was for the Guardian in 2003. It was about three convicted killers who had had their executions halted due to questions surrounding the cocktail of drugs the state intended to use to kill them. Their attorneys claimed the leading trade body for veterinarians in the US wanted one of the drugs outlawed because they said it masked suffering. All three men have since been executed. Texas eventually changed its drug protocol.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people who have since been executed. I’ve heard confessions, remorse, pleas of innocence. I’ve heard stories of childhood trauma, seen tears, and listened to the incoherent rambling of men I’m sure weren’t mentally fit to understand what was happening to them. I’ve interviewed serial killers, hitmen, and mass shooters. And a man who was sent to death row the year I was born. For one story, I sent letters to every single inmate on death row.

I’ve also witnessed an execution. In 2014, I watched Kenneth Hogan turn from pink to ash grey before my eyes at Oklahoma’s death chamber as the lethal drugs took effect. I felt a certain amount of guilt, too, and wrote that everyone present had been complicit in this macabre drama.

It’s easy to think trauma is the preserve of the victims’ families; from the pain they’ve endured waiting for this moment of closure. But I’ve learned that closure is ephemeral, if indeed the knowledge that your loved one’s killer has been executed even delivers it in the first place. And trauma isn’t exclusive: the families of inmates usually suffer in silence; lawyers representing them are traumatised; and their guards are weighed down under the heavy fog of serving as a cog in a machine whose ultimate aim is to take a human life.

One study showed more than a quarter of prison guards suffer from PTSD compared with just 3.5% of the general population. A guard at the Polunsky Unit told me that after five years working a night shift, a fellow officer assigned to death row walked into the prison parking lot, sat in his car, and put a bullet in his head.

One lawyer told me that after her client’s execution she’d walked to a nearby restaurant and washed her food and several anti-anxiety pills down with numerous cocktails. In the weeks and months that followed, the despair she felt intensified. Then came the intrusive thoughts; the nightmares; the sleepless nights. “The death penalty,” she told me, “allows a terribly tragic and horrific event to compound its darkness by harming so many more peripheral, innocent people. A lawyer is not a minister, but we are being asked to help someone die … and the damage is unspeakable.”

Over the years, Cantu and I have exchanged countless letters. He’ll send cards at Christmas and Easter and on my birthday. In 2011, he sent one congratulating my wife and me on the birth of our daughter. Sometimes he’ll write that he’s anxious that mail from family and friends isn’t getting through. Other times he’ll update me on his case. To most, he’ll attach a cartoon clipped from The New Yorker magazine.

“GREETINGS MY WONDERFUL FRIEND!!!!” one letter began. “What a treat it is to hear from you.” Cantu isn’t my friend; not in the conventional sense anyway. He’s a source and interviewee, albeit one I’ve become fairly close to over two decades. But as one death penalty lawyer once told me, we’re often the only friends they have.

A year ago, Cantu wrote to tell me his request for Pope Francis to attend his execution had been denied. “Isn’t this crazy?” he said. “Teams of people from around the world are helping me, yet I can’t have the pope pray with me in the death chamber.” All I could think was this: 23 years in solitary confinement, with just an hour a day outside your cell to stretch your legs, does immeasurable things to the human mind.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, has agreed to act as Cantu’s spiritual adviser. Years ago, she told me that, as minister to another condemned man in Texas, she wasn’t allowed to hug or touch him in the death chamber; that executions were a “contrived, artificial event”; and that when she first walked in, he was fully alive, and “the only thing that told me he was about to die was my mind and my watch, ticking away on my wrist”.

Kim Kardashian and Martin Sheen, along with Susan Sarandon, who portrayed Prejean in the movie version of the book, have since added their names to the effort to save Cantu’s life. But campaigning to stop an execution by insisting someone is innocent isn’t always helpful. The truth is that not everyone on death row is innocent, but I’m yet to find a case that wasn’t problematic. Kick up enough dirt and you’ll discover an unrepresentative jury, a defence lawyer who fell asleep during the trial, racism, or, in Cantu’s case, just plain reasonable doubt. Reasonable doubt may not be much of a celebrity soundbite, but it’s enough not to kill someone.

Ivan Cantu has spent almost a quarter of a century in solitary confinement in one of the most notorious maximum security lock-ups in America. Some might argue that’s punishment enough.