I was talking to a couple from Philadelphia at a cocktail reception on the East Coast last week. When I said I worked as a journalist in Texas, the husband mentioned that he’d heard the state had executed an innocent man. He asked if I knew about the case.
“Well,” I said, “you’ll have to be more specific.”
Yes, it has come to this: Credible claims of innocence in multiple cases of men executed years ago. It’s becoming a disgrace for the state. What else can we say after the recent disturbing revelations in the case of Carlos DeLuna?
DeLuna was convicted of stabbing to death 24-year-old Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi convenience store in 1983. His conviction was based largely on the shaky testimony of a single eyewitness. Police had the eyewitness identify DeLuna at the crime scene while DeLuna was in custody—not ideal policing practice to say the least. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Yet the state executed DeLuna in 1989. Now it appears they had the wrong man.
In 2003, Columbia University law professor James Liebman and a group of students began an eight-year reinvestigation of DeLuna’s case. Their results were recently published in a book-length Columbia Human Rights Law Review article.
The evidence strongly suggests that not only did Texas execute an innocent man, but that prosecutors and police could have easily discovered that another man named Carlos was the likely perpetrator. Carlos Hernandez, who looked remarkably like Carlos DeLuna, had a record of stabbing people with a buck knife—the same weapon used to kill Wanda Lopez. It was widely rumored in the neighborhood that Hernandez had committed the murder. Corpus police officers even heard those rumors, yet didn’t act on them. DeLuna himself told his attorneys about Hernandez, yet his defense team and the prosecution claimed they couldn’t find such a person. At trial, prosecutors suggested that Carlos Hernandez didn’t exist. But he did. An investigator hired by Liebman tracked down Hernandez in a matter of hours. He had died in prison in 1999.
Texans have sadly grown accustomed to the horrifying tales of wrongful conviction after more than two dozen DNA exonerations in Dallas County and the high-profile cases of Anthony Graves and Michael Morton. But the DeLuna case is one of the most dispiriting yet. Though the details are different, what happened to DeLuna is eerily similar to the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case and to the Claude Jones case. (If you’re not familiar with the Jones story, which the Observer broke in November 2010, then read this story. DNA tests debunked the key evidence against Jones, who was executed in 2000, though the tests didn’t conclusively establish his actual innocence.) Then there’s the case of Ruben Cantu, a former special ed student executed in 1993 for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit.
In all these instances, prosecutors, judges and police officers could have easily unearthed major problems with the evidence: the existence of Carlos Hernandez in DeLuna’s case, the debunked arson evidence against Willingham, the DNA test that Jones requested before his execution but wasn’t granted, and the key witness who said police pressured him to implicate Cantu. As with Willingham, Jones and Cantu, officials in the DeLuna case seemingly didn’t care to learn the truth. And an apparently innocent man is dead because of it.
Now Texas is quickly gaining a national reputation as the state that executes innocent people.