The USA has almost certainly executed innocent men in the so called “modern” era of capital punishment, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. One of them may have been Carlos DeLuna, who was put to death in Texas in 1989 for the killing of gas station attendant Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi.
Today, a comprehensive report and website by James Liebman and a team of students in the Columbia University Human Rights Law Review makes a compelling case for DeLuna’s innocence.
To explain how this wrongful conviction and execution could have happened Liebman et al. point to the
“failure of lawyers on the defense as well as the prosecution side to have the curiosity and gumption to look just an inch or two below the surface.”
This is an all-too common occurrence, argue the authors, when there is a general indifference to an “obscure” victim like Wanda Lopez, making such cases “ripe for miscarriage” of justice.
This report, Los Tocayos Carlos, follows on the heels of an investigation by the Chicago Tribune, amplified by the film At the Death House Door, which already made it fairly clear that Texas authorities had the wrong Carlos.
Carlos Hernandez was the other Carlos, the man Carlos DeLuna said had stabbed Wanda Lopez. At trial, prosecutors declared that Hernandez was a “phantom” made up by DeLuna, but this wasn’t true. He was in fact well-known to Corpus Christi law enforcement as a man with a propensity to frightening violence and a love of knives. A career criminal who was almost always out on parole, he continued to assault women after DeLuna was sent to prison.
In November 1983, Hernandez was arrested for attacking his wife with an axe handle. He got 30 days in jail for a misdemeanor, but his parole wasn’t revoked. The judge who issued this light sentence was the father of the lawyer who had inadequately represented Carlos DeLuna.
Carlos Hernandez repeatedly told others that he killed Wanda Lopez and that a tocayo (namesake) was paying for the crime. Hernandez also told people he was responsible for a 1979 murder for which he was indicted but never tried. A former detective admitted that tipsters had told him Carlos Hernandez was the real killer of Wanda Lopez, but that information was apparently never pursued.
The failure to investigate Carlos Hernandez for the killing of Wanda Lopez, or to adequately punish him for other crimes, suggests a cruel indifference to the people of the community he was terrorizing. As the authors put it:
Wanda Lopez’s worthy and unimpeachable life was dishonored not only by the inattention to her plight on the night of February 4, 1983, by everyone in a position to help her, but also by the nonchalance with which everyone in a position to find her killer carried out that responsibility.
The people in this Corpus Christi community paid the price for this nonchalance, and it appears Carlos DeLuna paid the ultimate price.
If you think the death penalty is wrong and the risk of executing the innocent is too high then do something about it by joining our fight to abolish the death penalty in every US state.