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With days left before he’s executed, Ivan Cantu insists he’s innocent of double-murder

By Ed Lavandera, Dakin Andone and Ashley Killough, CNN

West Livingston, Texas (CNN) — Ivan Cantu says he has insisted for more than 20 years that he’s innocent of the two murders that landed him on Texas’ death row. But with a week until his execution, he’s running out of time to make his case.

“The clock is ticking,” Cantu said in an interview Wednesday, a week before his execution scheduled for February 28. He expressed hope the courts will stay his execution, or Gov. Greg Abbott will grant him a reprieve, allowing him time to argue he was deprived of a fair trial and framed by the true killers.

But he also entertained “the worst-case scenario”: “They ignore everything and place me on that gurney and kill me.”

(Coincidentally, CNN’s Ed Lavandera attended elementary school with Cantu. Prior to this week’s interview, they hadn’t spoken in nearly four decades.)

Cantu’s hopes rest in a flurry of litigation before the courts and a clemency petition, which collectively claim myriad issues with his conviction in the 2000 murders of his cousin, James Mosqueda, and Mosqueda’s fiancée, Amy Kitchen.

Cantu and his attorney argue the state’s key witnesses – Cantu’s then-girlfriend and her brother –– gave false testimony at trial. Additionally, they say newly uncovered evidence corroborates a story Cantu relayed at the time of the killings, suggesting his cousin was killed by rival drug dealers who threatened Cantu the night before.

Cantu has asked for a hearing and either a lesser sentence or a 120-day reprieve. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles is expected to vote on its clemency recommendation two days before the execution, Cantu’s attorney, Gena Bunn, told CNN. But the final decision is the governor’s, and he is not bound by the board’s recommendation.

Crucially, much of the evidence being argued today has never been presented at a court hearing. Similar arguments were included in a filing last April, shortly before Cantu was last scheduled to be executed. A judge subsequently withdrew the execution date, but last August, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed Cantu’s request “without considering the merits of the claims.”

Three of Cantu’s jurors hope his execution is stalled while the evidence is reviewed, his petition says, in addition to high-profile supporters like Sister Helen Prejean and Kim Kardashian, who’s urged her followers on X to sign a petition for the withdrawal of his execution date. As of Friday, it had collected more than 100,000 signatures.

Perhaps his most important ally is Matt Duff, who uncovered much of the evidence now undergirding Cantu’s innocence claim and documented his independent review in a podcast. Bunn called Duff’s information “critical,” and a “boon” to Cantu’s case.

“You can’t say that he doesn’t deserve a new trial,” said Duff, who told CNN he wants the evidence to be presented in a hearing before Cantu’s execution. If that happened, he said, “people would see this case in a completely different way with reasonable doubt. A lot of reasonable doubt.”

Duff’s investigation shows “the system’s broken,” Cantu said, pointing to the cases of Rodney Reed and Melissa Lucio, other Texas death row inmates who claim they were wrongfully convicted. Indeed, at least 196 people sentenced to death since 1973 have subsequently been exonerated, 16 of them in Texas, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

“If you’re nearing 200 exonerations across the country and you know that there are innocent people on death row with the possibility of getting executed, you need to stop it,” he said.

For their part, prosecutors have rejected Cantu’s arguments, writing in a court filing Thursday that Cantu has presented “no new evidence,” and his recent filings do not “impugn the integrity of the guilty verdict.”

In a statement, Collin County District Attorney Greg Willis said he remained “fully convinced that Ivan Cantu brutally murdered” Mosqueda and Kitchen, pointing to the “undeniable evidence presented at trial,” including the DNA analysis, fingerprints, ballistics and witness testimony.

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

CNN has been unable to reach the families of Mosqueda and Kitchen for comment.

The killings of James Mosqueda and Amy Kitchen

The bodies of Mosqueda — a known drug dealer, Cantu’s court filings say – and Kitchen were discovered inside the bedroom of their Dallas home on November 4, 2000, both with multiple gunshot wounds. When the bodies were found, Cantu and his girlfriend, Amy Boettcher, were in Arkansas for a pre-planned trip to visit her family, having left Dallas earlier that day.

Key evidence in the trial included Mosqueda’s Corvette, which was found on November 5 parked outside Cantu and Boettcher’s apartment, not far from the victims’ home. Inside the apartment, police recovered bloody jeans and bloody socks, the state said. DNA analysis revealed the blood belonged to Mosqueda and Kitchen.

Cantu and his attorney say the state’s case falls apart in the face of new evidence, some of which shows Boettcher’s testimony was “riddled with falsehoods.” Boettcher died in 2021.

Prosecutors at trial told jurors they could convict Cantu based solely on Boettcher’s testimony, which detailed the night of the killings and the days that followed.

She testified the killings occurred between 11:30 p.m. November 3 and 12:18 a.m. November 4, and she threw the bloody jeans in their trashcan. Cantu “wanted to show me what he did,” she said, and took her to the crime scene, and they left, Cantu driving Mosqueda’s Corvette.

Back at their apartment, Boettcher said Cantu proposed to her with an engagement ring she later learned was Kitchen’s, and they took the Corvette to a club soon after. On the way, Boettcher said, Cantu threw a Rolex watch he’d taken from Mosqueda out the window.

When they returned from Arkansas on November 7, Boettcher testified, Cantu took back the engagement ring and disposed of the boots she’d worn to the crime scene. They spent the night with Cantu’s ex-girlfriend, she said. When Cantu met with detectives the next day, he was arrested for the murders.

Boettcher decided to return to Arkansas. Before boarding her flight, prosecutors said, she told Cantu’s ex-girlfriend to search her apartment, in case Cantu left something behind.

Beneath her couch, prosecutors said, the ex-girlfriend found the murder weapon. On the barrel of the gun was blood that matched Mosqueda’s DNA, and the magazine inside contained Cantu’s fingerprint.

‘My statement shouldn’t count,’ key witness said

Cantu and his attorney contend much of this testimony was false. The Rolex watch, a family heirloom, was not missing but in the possession of Mosqueda’s family since before the trial, according to court documents. Mosqueda’s mother confirmed she had the watch in an interview with a DA investigator in 2019.

Cantu’s filings similarly allege Boettcher provided false testimony about the engagement ring: Two witnesses saw Boettcher wearing an engagement ring a week prior to the murders, the documents say, so the ring couldn’t have been Kitchen’s (that ring has never been recovered). And Boettcher’s boots were not thrown in a dumpster but recovered from Cantu’s car, Cantu and his attorney claim.

Cantu and his attorney also believe they’ve discredited Boettcher’s timeline. In court documents, they cite two forensic pathologists who believe, based on their review of the evidence, Mosqueda and Kitchen were killed less than 12 hours before they were found. That would make the time of death sometime later the morning of November 4, outside the window described by Boettcher.

The state, however, rejects the allegation Boettcher provided false testimony, saying in its filing Thursday her statements were corroborated by the other evidence in the case. At the time, DA Willis wrote, Boettcher “was the victim of abuse” under Cantu’s control. Boettcher, Willis wrote “continues to be (Cantu’s) victim by continuously being called a liar and manipulator who is part of an alleged elaborate conspiracy with unknown person to frame” Cantu.

Cantu and his attorney have also challenged the testimony of Jeff Boettcher, Amy Boettcher’s brother, who testified at trial that Cantu told him he planned to kill Mosqueda for drugs and $13,000 he believed in his cousin’s possession, and that Cantu asked if he would help clean up. Jeff Boettcher also connected Cantu to the murder weapon, a gun prosecutors said fired every bullet and shell casing recovered in the case.

But Jeff Boettcher recanted his testimony in 2022, after his sister’s death, Cantu’s filings note. In an interview with investigators from the Collin County District Attorney’s Office, Jeff Boettcher confessed he was on drugs at the time of the killings and when he testified. The conversation where Cantu allegedly asked him to clean up “never happened.”

“I lied,” Jeff Boettcher said, adding later, “My statement shouldn’t count.”

Willis says this argument “misconstrued” Jeff Boettcher’s 2022 interview with the DA’s office. Willis wrote that, “once confronted with his actual trial testimony, his (Jeff Boettcher’s) concerns about that testimony were alleviated.”

Jeff Calhoun, who served as the foreman of Cantu’s jury, told CNN in an interview the testimony of Amy and Jeff Boettcher was “persuasive,” and Jeff Boettcher’s recantation “strikes me to the core.”

“I believe that due process should be conclusive, but there’s mistakes,” Calhoun said. “And I’m afraid this is one of those, and I really regret that it was the one that I was involved in. But I’m convinced that there’s some holes in this.”

In past appeals, Cantu unsuccessfully argued ineffective assistance of counsel, pointing to his trial attorneys’ decisions to not call a single witness during the guilt-innocence phase of the trial.

In a 2005 affidavit explaining his legal strategy, one of Cantu’s trial attorneys wrote he and his co-counsel focused on the penalty phase of the trial, when Cantu’s jury would decide whether to sentence him to death, in hopes of obtaining a life sentence.

Additionally, the attorney wrote, Cantu had once admitted to killing Mosqueda “for ‘ripping him off’ on a drug deal,” and killing Kitchen to not leave any witnesses.

Bunn said Cantu “vehemently denies” ever making such a confession.

Another theory

Additionally, in filings this week, Cantu and his attorney claim new evidence backs up a story he told at the time of the killings, suggesting Mosqueda and Kitchen were killed by rival drug dealers.

According to Cantu, two days before the bodies were found, a man in a pizza delivery uniform driving a Lincoln came to his apartment. When he opened the door, Cantu claims, the man said Mosqueda owed him $250,000 and then fired a bullet into the wall of Cantu’s apartment. The bullet recovered from the wall matched those taken from the victims’ bodies, Cantu’s court filing notes.

Prosecutors dismissed this story as a lie, and Amy Boettcher testified Cantu fired the gun at her during an argument that night.

But now, Cantu and his attorney say new evidence shows the “pizza man” was a real person, namely one of Mosqueda’s drug suppliers, court filings say. They cite a witness who worked for Mosqueda, who claims the description of the “pizza man” matches that of an acquaintance who would visit Mosqueda and drove a Lincoln.

In the same vein, Cantu and his attorney previously raised questions about the bloody jeans found in his trashcan. A police officer who entered Cantu’s apartment on November 4 for a wellness check at the request of Cantu’s mother said in a sworn statement she did not remember seeing the bloodstained clothes, despite Amy Boettcher’s claim she threw them away the night before.

Cantu’s court filings point to this – along with a long-distance phone call said to have been made from inside the apartment the night of November 4, after the wellness check – as proof that someone else was inside the apartment, “supporting the conclusion that Mr. Cantu was framed by the person or persons truly responsible for James Mosqueda’s murder.”

Again, prosecutors on Thursday rejected Cantu’s theory. In his filing, Willis said that Cantu had not been able to show that Mosqueda owed the purported pizza man any money, or that the man had any reason to approach Cantu in an effort recover Mosqueda’s alleged debt. And Cantu “failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that these facts establish he could not have been found guilty of the offense,” Willis wrote.

“Moreover, any evidence that Mosqueda had an associate that matched the description of the pizza man has absolutely no impact on the overwhelming evidence of (Cantu’s) guilt,” the filing said.

Cantu doesn’t know exactly who killed his cousin and Kitchen, he said, and people have long told him the “pizza man” story sounds “so odd and so bizarre.” At the time, he said, “we didn’t know” what it meant.

“But we know what that means today and how everything makes sense and comes together,” he said, crediting Bunn with putting together the argument to “show that I was telling the truth, and that I wasn’t lying.”

‘Execute justice, not Ivan’

With the date of his execution approaching, Cantu’s not sleeping well. Instead, he’s waiting to hear whether the courts have granted him relief – or denied it. And while he’s “concerned and frightened,” he doesn’t let himself think about lying on the gurney inside the execution chamber.

“That’s not my mindset,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”

Cantu’s supporters gathered Thursday outside the Collin County courthouse for a rally in his honor, calling on the district attorney to withdraw his execution date.

Among them was Nikki Pratt, who described herself as Cantu’s best friend for 39 years and said she would be “devastated” if he is executed.

“They need to execute justice,” Pratt said, “not Ivan.”

CNN’s Ed Lavandera and Ashley Killough reported from West Livingston, Texas, while Dakin Andone reported and wrote this story in New York.

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