The Austin Chronicle

Death Watch: Forced Testimony Over Evidence?

No physical evidence implicates Cardenas in his cousin’s murder

By Sarah Marloff, November 3, 2017, News

Ruben Cardenas, a Mexican national convicted of capital murder for kidnapping, raping, and killing his 16-year-old cousin in McAllen, is scheduled for execution on Nov. 8, but his fight is far from over. This week, Cardenas' legal team, led by Maurie Levin and funded by the Mexican government, filed two appeals with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: one to reverse the Hidalgo District Court's Oct. 25 decision to deny DNA testing, the other seeking relief and a new hearing.

Stories vary about Mayra Laguna's Feb. 22, 1997, abduction, but a 1997 interview with KRGV/Channel 5 News has Cardenas saying that his cousin asked him to fake her kidnapping and take her away. He said he drove her outside of town, where they got into a fight about her wanting to marry him and began hitting each other. "By the time I knew it, she was already just laying there," he said. In a panic, he dumped her body in a canal.

According to his appeals, however, there was no physical evidence linking Cardenas to the crime – including no forensic evidence of sexual assault. Instead, prosecutors relied primarily on statements Cardenas made after his arrest. Levin writes: "His conviction and death sentence bear all the indicia of a wrongful conviction, including questionable eyewitness testimony, coerced, uncounseled confessions, and unreliable forensic evidence."

Further, Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program director Greg Kuykendall insists that as a Mexican national, Cardenas had a right to consult with Mexico's consulate for legal advice and representation under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. But Cardenas was never informed of that right after his arrest, nor was the con­sul­ate alerted. It took the state 11 days to appoint Cardenas' legal counsel; during that time, Kuykendall said, Cardenas' Miranda rights were "violated and he confessed." The consulate didn't learn of the charges against Cardenas until five months later. Kuykendall says Mexico has been "deeply involved in the case ever since, but a significant amount of damage" had already been done.

Should his appeals be denied, Cardenas would be the seventh Texan executed in 2017. Executions have been largely unpredictable this year: Larry Swearingen was scheduled for Nov. 16 (and still is, according to the Department of Criminal Justice website), but the Houston Chronicle reported on Sun­day that his execution had been stayed now that both sides have agreed to DNA testing. (Swearingen was convicted of the 1998 rape and murder of Melissa Trotter, but maintains he's innocent.) If Swearingen's name sounds familiar it's because he's partially responsible for Anthony Shore's 90-day stay last month. The state believes Shore colluded with Swearingen and was planning to claim responsibility for Trotter's murder. Meanwhile, Juan Castillo, whose August execution was delayed due to Hurricane Harvey, is back on the clock with a new execution date, Dec. 14. He's the last person scheduled to die by the state's hand in 2017.

This story previously reported in error that the KRGV interview happened in 2016. In fact it took place in 1997.

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