Cantu loses appeal in gang rape, murder case

August 11, 2009 5:51:08 PM PDT
A federal appeals court on Tuesday refused to hear from a death row inmate accused of being the ringleader of a gang of teenagers convicted of raping and killing two teenage Houston girls 16 years ago. The denial from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals moves Peter Anthony Cantu, 34, closer to execution for the murders of Elizabeth Pena, 16, and her 14-year-old friend, Jennifer Ertman. The girls were gang raped, beaten and strangled in an attack that shocked crime-hardened Houston and attracted national attention for its brutality.

The girls' bodies, decomposing in the blazing Houston heat, were found four days after the pair failed to return home.

Cantu, who was 18 at the time of the slayings, and four companions -- all 17 or 18 -- received death sentences. Two already have been executed. Two others had their sentences commuted to life after the U.S. Supreme Court barred the death penalty for those who were under 18 at the time of their crimes.

A sixth suspect was sentenced to 40 years.

In the appeal, Cantu's lawyers argued that his due process rights were violated because trial jurors should have been told that he would have had to serve 35 years of a life sentence before he became eligible for parole. They questioned the trial judge's jury instructions and whether mitigating evidence like character issues and criminal background presented to jurors at his 1994 trial was proper.

They also contended Cantu's trial lawyers were deficient for not objecting to admission of crime scene photos into evidence and for failing to object when prosecutors urged jurors to consider those photos when they were deciding Cantu's punishment.

In its ruling, a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit unanimously refused to allow Cantu to move forward on any of the issues. The court let stand his conviction and death sentence for the slayings that even the court described as "grisly."

Jennifer Ertman's father, Randy Ertman, declined to comment about the ruling Tuesday. Andy Kahan, a crime victims advocate for the city of Houston, said Ertman told him his daughter's birthday would have been in four days.

Evidence showed the girls were trying to return home the night of June 24, 1993, and took a short cut over a railroad trestle when they stumbled into an initiation being held by a gang that called itself the "Black and Whites."

In a savage ordeal, the two were raped and forced to perform sex acts, then were beaten and strangled with a belt and shoelaces.

Evidence showed Cantu kicked Pena in the face with his steel-toed boot and that he and other gang members stood on the girls' necks to be certain they were dead. Court documents show the gang then went to Cantu's home where they bragged about the crime to his brother and sister-in-law, who later reported to police what they had heard. That led to the discovery of the bodies in a nearby wooded area and the arrests.

In 2006, Derrick O'Brien became the first of the gang members executed. Jose Medellin was put to death last year.

Two others, Efrain Perez and Raul Villarreal, both 17 at the time of the killings, had their death sentences commuted to life in prison in 2005.

Medellin's brother, Vernancio, who was 14 at the time, is serving a 40-year prison term, the maximum for a juvenile.

Cantu does not yet have an execution date.

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