Convicted murderer Ivan Cantu who long claimed innocence executed in Texas

The state of Texas has executed Ivan Cantu on Wednesday, February 28 (local time).
The state of Texas has executed Ivan Cantu on Wednesday, February 28 (local time). Photo credit: Ashley Killough/CNN via CNN Newsource

The state of Texas on Wednesday executed death row inmate Ivan Cantu, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 2000 murders of his cousin and his cousin's fiancée - though he insisted until his death that he was innocent.

Cantu, 50, was put to death by lethal injection, with the time of death recorded as 6:47 p.m., the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said in a news release.

With his last words, Cantu maintained he was innocent of the murders of James Mosqueda, his cousin, and Amy Kitchen, a nursing student.

"I'd like to address the Kitchens and Mosqueda families. I want you to know that I never killed James and Amy," Cantu said. "And if I did, if I knew who did, you would've been the first to know any information I would've had that would've helped to bring justice to James and Amy."

Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis, however, said Cantu had "finally met with justice" after more than two decades of courts "comprehensively reviewing" his case.

"My hopeful prayer is for the victims' families, friends, and loved ones to find a long-awaited sense of peace," Willis said in a statement.

There were no issues with the lethal injection, which took about 21 minutes, a TDCJ spokesperson said afterwards.

In addition to three journalists, the execution was witnessed by Kitchen's brother, her sister-in-law and a family friend. Cantu had asked not to have any witnesses of his own, the spokesperson said, though he was accompanied by his spiritual advisor, anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean of "Dead Man Walking" fame.

Michael Graczyk, a media witness who covered the execution for the Associated Press, said Cantu appeared in "pretty good spirits" before the execution. Prejean held Cantu's hand and whispered into his ear for about two minutes before he gave his final statement. Cantu "didn't sound bitter, he didn't sound irate" during his last statement, Graczyk said. "He just insisted he was innocent."

Cantu and his advocates -- among them three of his trial jurors -- had called for his execution to be halted to allow time for new evidence to be evaluated and for the inmate to argue he was deprived of a fair trial and, in his telling, framed by those truly responsible for the killings.

But the options to stop the execution swiftly dwindled in the hours before it was carried out Wednesday evening. The night prior, a federal appeals court declined to intervene - a ruling that followed another earlier in the week by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which similarly rejected an appeal by Cantu and a request to stay his execution.

Cantu's attorney, Gena Bunn, did not appeal the case to the US Supreme Court, saying Tuesday night's order by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals meant the inmate's team "could not find a viable path forward."

Separately, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles had unanimously voted against recommending a commutation of Cantu's sentence or a 120-day reprieve. As a result, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott could have, at most, granted Cantu a one-time 30-day reprieve

But he did not, despite the pleas of Cantu's advocates, who included reality star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian and the actor Martin Sheen. His staunchest supporter, however, was perhaps his first: His mother, Sylvia Cantu, remained convinced of her son's innocence, she told CNN Tuesday, a day before he was put to death.

"It's a hard thing to accept," she said of the prospect that her son would die before her. "But if I would have it different, I'd trade my life for Ivan's. Take me, not him."

In pressing for his execution to be stopped, Ivan Cantu had pointed to the cases of other Texas death row inmates like Rodney Reed and Melissa Lucio, who claim they also were wrongfully convicted. Indeed, at least 196 people sentenced to death in the United States since 1973 have been exonerated, 16 of them in Texas, according to the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center.

Cantu's execution took place just hours after Idaho officials on Wednesday halted the lethal injection of death row inmate Thomas Creech, 73, in the latest example of a state struggling to carry out the process because of an inability to establish an IV line.

Prosecutor still 'convinced' of Cantu's guilt

In court filings, Cantu and his attorney claimed false testimony was presented at trial by the state's key witnesses, including one who has since recanted. They also contended newly uncovered evidence supports an account Cantu told at the time of the killings, suggesting Mosqueda - an alleged drug dealer, per the inmate's filings - was targeted and killed by rivals who also threatened Cantu over his cousin's alleged debts. Cantu also had argued ineffective assistance of counsel, pointing in part to his trial attorneys' decision to not call a single witness during the guilt-innocence phase of his trial.

Prosecutors, however, rejected these claims, writing in their own court filings that Cantu's arguments do nothing to "impugn the integrity of the guilty verdict."

Willis remained "fully convinced" of Cantu's guilt, he said in a statement last week, citing the "undeniable evidence" featured at trial.

Cantu's fingerprint was found on the magazine inside the gun used to kill Mosqueda and Kitchen, and DNA analysis showed blood on jeans found in Cantu's trash can belonged to Mosqueda and Kitchen, according to prosecutors.

"It's my firm belief that justice has been done in this case and that a Collin County jury's verdict should be carried out on February 28th," Willis said.

Cantu's case was previously upheld on appeal. But he and his attorney say the evidence now supporting his innocence claim - much of it uncovered by podcaster Matt Duff - has not been heard by the courts.

Similar arguments were included in an appeal last April, shortly before Cantu was last scheduled to be executed. A judge subsequently withdrew Cantu's execution date, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately dismissed Cantu's request without considering the merits of the claims.

Jury foreman saw 'holes' in the case

Collectively, the evidence was enough to convince three of Cantu's jurors to join the effort to halt Wednesday's execution. They included the panel's foreman, who now fears the jury was presented with an incomplete picture of the case, he told CNN.

"I'm convinced that there's some holes in this," Jeff Calhoun said, adding he took his responsibility as a juror very seriously.

Meanwhile, Cantu's supporters dedicated themselves to raising awareness about the case - a petition calling for a withdrawal of his execution date garnered more than 150,000 signatures - and to pressing GOP Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a reprieve.

"There are all these questions over the actual guilt of this man," Prejean told CNN's Jake Tapper this week, calling on people to contact Abbott on Cantu's behalf. "He has one of the last vestiges of the divine right of kings. He's a safety valve in all this. When justice is not done in the courts or you question it ... he can grant a reprieve long enough to be able to look at the new evidence, which no court is yet willing to hear."

Cantu had asked in his clemency petition for a hearing and either a commutation to a life sentence or a 120-day reprieve.