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Activist Nun Leads Push to Delay Execution of Texas Death Row Inmate

Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, who has worked in prison ministry and against the death penalty for decades, is seen in this 2016 file photo. (Photo: CNS/Paul Haring)

WASHINGTON — Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime activist against the death penalty, is leading a campaign to delay the scheduled execution of Texas death row inmate Ivan Cantu on Feb. 28.

She said a delay will allow for a hearing and an inquiry to examine evidence that may prove that Cantu, 50, was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his cousin and his cousin’s fiancée 24 years ago. 

Sister Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, is urging people to join her in pleading for Cantu through a Move On petition that asks Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis, and the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals to withdraw Cantu’s execution date. The petition had more than 144,000 signatures as of the morning of Feb. 27.

The woman religious said that if the execution is not stopped, she will be at Cantu’s side when he is put to death, but she will not do this without continuing to fight for him.

“There’s no way I’m simply going to acquiesce, hold his hand, and pray him into eternity without doing every single thing I can to get the truth out so that Texas does not execute this man,” she said on her website. 

Sister Prejean’s fight for Cantu, has been joined by celebrities Kim Kardashian, Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, and Mandy Patinkin.

The Move On petition states: “Everyone deserves a fair trial. We want the judicial system to scrutinize the new evidence in Ivan’s case that exposes fraudulent testimony and wrongdoing by state witnesses and law enforcement.”

“All we are asking is for the execution to be delayed and an inquiry into new evidence to be opened,” it adds.

The one-time, 30-day stay of execution activists are seeking would allow the courts time to review Cantu’s pending appeals. In recent years, his legal team and private investigators have unearthed details of post-trial evidence they claim would be enough to overturn his conviction — including a key witness who admitted he lied while testifying and the discovery of a watch Cantu was accused of stealing.

Some of the jurors who voted to sentence Cantu to death have also called for this evidence to be reviewed, saying they are disturbed they heard false and misleading testimony during the trial. 

Cantu, who has maintained his innocence for more than two decades, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection for the 2000 murder of his cousin James Mosqueda and Mosqueda’s fiancée, Amy Kitchen. Cantu, who was 28 at the time of the murders, was convicted in 2001 and sentenced to death. He has always maintained that a rival drug dealer framed him.

Texas scheduled an execution date for Cantu in April 2023, but a last-minute appeal describing new evidence of false witness testimony provided grounds for a stay of execution. However, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the stay and dismissed Cantu’s request for an evidentiary hearing four months later. 

Catholic Mobilizing Network, a Washington-based group that works to end the death penalty, is urging people to contact Gov. Abbott, through a form on their website asking him to grant Cantu a stay of execution.

The Texas Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, wrote to the governor and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles similarly urging a stay of execution for Cantu.

Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, told a reporter that the conference will “continue to advocate for a review of his case based on the new information and his claim of innocence.”

A year ago, when Cantu was granted a stay, Allmon said the conference was grateful he had been shown mercy especially since his case was “riddled with serious uncertainties including false testimony, withholding of evidence, and potential framing.”