Witness to the execution

HUNTSVILLE, TX ______________________________________________________________

Seventeen years after taking part in one of the most heinous crimes in Houston history, Peter Cantu was executed tonight in Huntsville.

I was escorted along with four other media witnesses from the waiting area across the street to the Walls Unit where the death chamber is located. On the way, we passed a cluster of television cameramen and reporters covering the event for their local newscasts. In the distance could be heard the bullhorn shouts of the anti-death penalty protestors. "You media witnesses need to tell the truth about capital punishment," they screamed.

We entered the front doors of the Walls Unit and passed through metal bars into the warden's office where guards checked us for cameras or any other contraband. We were escorted down a long hallway through the visiting area where prisoners can see family. At this point, my hands began to shake and it proved difficult for me to write readable notes in my note pad. The reality of what I was about to experience was beginning to set in. We waited at this spot for a couple of minutes with the families of Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena. All around us were serious looking guards and prison officials. I tried to use this time to take in everything happening around me.

Walls Unit Major Crowley led us out another door that led through an outdoor courtyard toward the building housing the death chamber. I was struck by the beauty of this well maintained garden in the middle of a prison just feet from where a man was minutes from dying. Texas Rangers, in boots and straw hats, stood guard outside the building where the execution would take place. Overhead, an armed sentinel paced atop the prison wall. We were led into a small room no larger than a big closet. At one end of this room was a big window with steel bars behind it. Beyond those bars, just four feet from me, lay Peter Cantu. His head was shaved and his right arm was strapped down towards me on the other side of the window. An intravenous line had been inserted and taped down just below a large rose tatoo with the name "Anna". In the room with Cantu was the prison warden and a chaplain, who prayed as he laid his hand on the condemned man's right leg. Hanging from the ceiling was a microphone just inches from Cantu's face, there to record any last words. Across the death chamber from me, behind a mirrored glass, stood the parents of the murdered girls.

At this point the warden asked the prisoner if he wished to make a final statement. Cantu, staring straight to the ceiling, replied defiantly "No!" The hope that many people had that this murderer would show some remorse or accept some reponsibility for his crimes was gone with one short word. With that, the warden instructed the executioner to begin the flow of lethal drugs. Cantu closed his eyes and breathed in deeply before exhaling heavily. He would not move again. At his feet, the chaplain continued praying while the warden stood behind him looking sternly ahead. For the next five minutes we stood silently watching. The only sounds, the scribbling of notes and the growls of a hungry stomach in the witness room.

Into the room entered a doctor to check Cantu for any signs of life. After checking his neck and his heart for any pulse he advised the warden that the execution was complete. The man whose actions shocked an entire city, lay dead, eyes half open. A sheet was pulled over the deceased prisoner. It was 6:17pm.

We were escorted out of the room and through the prison back into the searing Texas heat to report what had happened to all in Houston.

I covered this story when the murders happened and remember how it shook our community to its core. Parents were afraid to let their children out of their sight. What I witnessed tonight was a man treated with dignity and respect, even at the moment of death. That is much more than what was given to Elizabeth Pena and Jennifer Ertman.

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