ONTD Political

How Texas sent an innocent man to his death

12:47 pm - 05/15/2012
A few years ago, Antonin Scalia, one of the nine justices on the US supreme court, made a bold statement. There has not been, he said, "a single case – not one – in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. If such an event had occurred … the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops."

Scalia may have to eat his words. It is now clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit, and his name – Carlos DeLuna – is being shouted from the rooftops of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. The august journal has cleared its entire spring edition, doubling its normal size to 436 pages, to carry an extraordinary investigation by a Columbia law school professor and his students.

The book sets out in precise and shocking detail how an innocent man was sent to his death on 8 December 1989, courtesy of the state of Texas. Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, is based on six years of intensive detective work by Professor James Liebman and 12 students.

Starting in 2004, they meticulously chased down every possible lead in the case, interviewing more than 100 witnesses, perusing about 900 pieces of source material and poring over crime scene photographs and legal documents that, when stacked, stand over 10ft high.

What they discovered stunned even Liebman, who, as an expert in America's use of capital punishment, was well versed in its flaws. "It was a house of cards. We found that everything that could go wrong did go wrong," he says.

Carlos DeLuna was arrested, aged 20, on 4 February 1983 for the brutal murder of a young woman, Wanda Lopez. She had been stabbed once through the left breast with an 8in lock-blade buck knife which had cut an artery causing her to bleed to death.

From the moment of his arrest until the day of his death by lethal injection six years later, DeLuna consistently protested he was innocent. He went further – he said that though he hadn't committed the murder, he knew who had. He even named the culprit: a notoriously violent criminal called Carlos Hernandez.

The two Carloses were not just namesakes – or tocayos in Spanish, as referenced in the title of the Columbia book. They were the same height and weight, and looked so alike that they were sometimes mistaken for twins. When Carlos Hernandez's lawyer saw pictures of the two men, he confused one for the other, as did DeLuna's sister Rose.

At his 1983 trial, Carlos DeLuna told the jury that on the day of the murder he'd run into Hernandez, who he'd known for the previous five years. The two men, who both lived in the southern Texas town of Corpus Christi, stopped off at a bar. Hernandez went over to a gas station, the Shamrock, to buy something, and when he didn't return DeLuna went over to see what was going on.

DeLuna told the jury that he saw Hernandez inside the Shamrock wrestling with a woman behind the counter. DeLuna said he was afraid and started to run. He had his own police record for sexual assault – though he had never been known to possess or use a weapon – and he feared getting into trouble again.

"I just kept running because I was scared, you know." When he heard the sirens of police cars screeching towards the gas station he panicked and hid under a pick-up truck where, 40 minutes after the killing, he was arrested.

At the trial, DeLuna's defence team told the jury that Carlos Hernandez, not DeLuna, was the murderer. But the prosecutors ridiculed that suggestion. They told the jury that police had looked for a "Carlos Hernandez" after his name had been passed to them by DeLuna's lawyers, without success. They had concluded that Hernandez was a fabrication, a "phantom" who simply did not exist. The chief prosecutor said in summing up that Hernandez was a "figment of DeLuna's imagination".

Four years after DeLuna was executed, Liebman decided to look into the DeLuna case as part of a project he was undertaking into the fallibility of the death penalty. He asked a private investigator to spend one day – just one day – looking for signs of the elusive Carlos Hernandez.

By the end of that single day the investigator had uncovered evidence that had eluded scores of Texan police officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges over the six years between DeLuna's arrest and execution. Carlos Hernandez did indeed exist.

Liebman's investigator tracked down within a few hours a woman who was related to both the Carloses. She supplied Hernandez's date of birth, which in turn allowed the unlocking of Hernandez's criminal past as the case rapidly unravelled.

With the help of his students, Liebman began to piece together a profile of Hernandez. He was an alcoholic with a history of violence, who was always in the company of his trusted companion: a lock-blade buck knife.

Over the years he was arrested 39 times, 13 of them for carrying a knife, and spent his entire adult life on parole. Yet he was almost never put in prison for his crimes – a disparity that Liebman believes was because he was used as a police informant. "Its hard to understand what happened without that piece of the puzzle," Liebman says.

Several of the crimes that Hernandez committed involved hold-ups of Corpus Christi gas stations. Just a few days before the Shamrock murder he was found cowering outside a nearby 7-Eleven wielding a knife – a detail never disclosed to DeLuna's defence.

He also had a history of violence towards women. He was twice arrested on suspicion of the 1979 murder of a woman called Dahlia Sauceda, who was stabbed and then had an "X" carved into her back. The first arrest was made four years before DeLuna's trial and the second while DeLuna was on death row, yet the connection between this Hernandez and the "phantom" presented to DeLuna's jury was never made.

In October 1989, just two months before DeLuna was executed, Hernandez was setenced to 10 years' imprisonment for attempting to kill with a knife another woman called Dina Ybanez. Even then, no one thought to alert the courts or Texas state as it prepared to put DeLuna to death.

Hernandez himself frequently told people that he was a knife murderer. He made numerous confessions to having killed Wanda Lopez, the crime for which DeLuna was executed, joking with friends and relatives that his "tocayo" had taken the fall. His admissions were so widely broadcast that even Corpus Christi police detectives came to hear about them within weeks of the incident at the Shamrock gas station.

Yet this was the same Carlos Hernandez who prosecutors told the jury did not exist. This was the figment of Carlos DeLuna's imagination.

Many other glaring discrepancies also stand out in the DeLuna case. He was put on death row largely on the eyewitness testimony of one man, Kevan Baker, who had seen the fight inside the Shamrock and watched the attacker flee the scene.

Yet when Baker was interviewed 20 years later, he said that he hadn't been that sure about the identification as he had trouble telling one Hispanic person apart from another.

Then there was the crime-scene investigation. Detectives failed to carry out or bungled basic forensic procedures that might have revealed information about the killer. No blood samples were collected and tested for the culprit's blood type.

Fingerprinting was so badly handled that no useable fingerprints were taken. None of the items found on the floor of the Shamrock – a cigarette stub, chewing gum, a button, comb and beer cans – were forensically examined for saliva or blood.

There was no scraping of the victim's fingernails for traces of the attacker's skin. When Liebman and his students studied digitally enhanced copies of crime scene photographs, they were amazed to find the footprint from a man's shoe imprinted in a pool of Lopez's blood on the floor – yet no effort was made to measure it.

"There it was," says Liebman. "The murderer had left his calling card at the scene, but it was never used."

Even the murder weapon, the knife, was not properly examined, though it was covered in blood and flesh. Other photographs show Lopez's blood splattered up to three feet high on the walls of the Shamrock counter. Yet when DeLuna's clothes and shoes were tested for traces of blood, not a single microscopic drop was found. The prosecution said it must have been washed away by the rain.

There appeared to have been an unseemly scramble to wrap up the crime scene. Less than two hours after the murder happened, the police chief in charge of the homicide investigation ordered all detectives to quit the Shamrock and allowed its owner to wash it down, sweeping away vital evidence that could have saved a man's life.

The exceptionally lax treatment of evidence continued even beyond the grave. When Liebman asked to see all the stored evidence in the case, so that he could subject it to the DNA testing that was not available to investigators in 1983, he was told that it had all disappeared.

Having lived and breathed this case for so many years, Liebman says the most shocking thing about it was its ordinariness. "This wasn't the trial of OJ Simpson. It was an obscure case, the kind that could involve anybody. Maybe those are the cases where miscarriages of justice happen, the routine everyday cases where nobody thinks enough about the victim, let alone the defendant."

The groundbreaking work that the Columbia law school has done comes at an important juncture for the death penalty in America. Connecticut last month became the fifth state in as many years to repeal the ultimate punishment and support for abolition is gathering steam.

In that context, Liebman hopes his exhaustive work will encourage Americans to think more deeply about what is done in their name. All the evidence the Columbia team has gathered on the DeLuna case has been placed on the internet with open public access.

"We've provided as complete a set of information as we can about a pretty average case, to let the public make its own judgment. I believe they will make the judgment that in this kind of case there's just too much risk."

As for the tocayos Carloses, Carlos Hernandez died of natural causes in a Texas prison in May 1999, having been jailed for assaulting a neighbour with a 9in knife.

Carlos DeLuna commented on his own ending in a television interview a couple of years before his execution. "Maybe one day the truth will come out," he said from behind reinforced glass. "I'm hoping it will. If I end up getting executed for this, I don't think it's right."


Clearly, Antonin Scalia is unable to Google 'people wrongly executed'.
phililen3 15th-May-2012 01:38 pm (UTC)
This is chilling.

I know for a fact that there will be people out there who will say that the number of innocent people who get executed are just a minority and that if the majority of people who get executed are actually guilty.... If only a small number of innocent people die... Oh well... Shit happens... At least we managed to get some of the bad guys.

This is really sad. And true. No one ever cares when it is just an average person. The police know that they are not being watched and will continue to do sloppy policework at the expense of innocent people.

And does the govt really think that it is enough to compensate families after murdering their family member? If there is a risk that innocent people might be killed then don't do it period. Don't go killing people.
Capital punishment needs to go.
People in my country want it, but it is exactly cases like that that make me say NO WAYS.
sweetwaterpink 15th-May-2012 01:51 pm (UTC)
ITAWTC. It's sad that if you are poor the justice system doesn't work for you but more likely against you.
thelilyqueen 15th-May-2012 01:54 pm (UTC)

In a purely theoretical arena I can see the argument that some people may just be too dangerous to others to be allowed to live, but that's theory. As long as here in reality we've got sloppy policework, incompetent defenders, and no way to really *know* if the mental requirements are met, let alone all the ways physical or witnesses' evidence can mislead... the death penalty's just not acceptable.
maladaptive 15th-May-2012 02:57 pm (UTC)
That's what terrifies me-- the people who think this sort of collateral damage is okay. Personally I think the death penalty should be abolished, period, but I could... I guess deal with it if they could guarantee everyone was guilty. But knowing that other people don't care chills me.
kaowolfie 15th-May-2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
People like that make me feel sick, because I cannot understand their thinking. It's bad to kill innocent people if Joe Blow on the street does it, but it's okay if the government does it so long as the government kills bad people too? How does that make any sense at all if you run it through any kind of reasonable moral filter?

There is no action so bad, no person so deserving of death, that the risk of taking an innocent's life is justified. Not even John Thanos' death was worth the risk. (Link contains horrifying excerpt of Thanos taunting his victims' families. Click at own risk. The opinion is much, much worse...)
brookiki 15th-May-2012 05:32 pm (UTC)
I know for a fact that there will be people out there who will say that the number of innocent people who get executed are just a minority and that if the majority of people who get executed are actually guilty.... If only a small number of innocent people die... Oh well... Shit happens... At least we managed to get some of the bad guys.

That's pretty much the exact opposite of what our justice system was supposed to be.

As far as compensation, my mind was absolutely broken when I found out that one of my tax law professor's pro bono cases was a Project Innocence case where a man had been falsely imprisoned for several years and, after being exonerated, was given a settlement which the government then tried to tax as income. And since it was presumably a lump sum, he was actually going to be taxed at a higher rate that he would have been if he had earned the money over the years while he was in prison. I know that's mild compared to an innocent man being executed, but it's just another one of the wonderful WTF moments of our legal system.
(no subject) - Anonymous
brookiki 16th-May-2012 07:52 am (UTC)
I had to read that twice for my brain to process it. My mom would be behind it, though. When I told her about the case (naturally expecting her to be outraged), she just looked at me and said something like "Well, he got free room and board for all those years." Someone's life was literally taken away from him and he was forced to live for years of his life in a cell surrounded by criminals and missed out on years of earning potential and you're outraged that he didn't pay rent? Really? The only thing that stopped me from pounding my head against the steering wheel was the fact that we were going about 70 mph down the interstate.
illusivevenstar 15th-May-2012 07:52 pm (UTC)
ONE person being wrongly executed is a failure of the justice system.
sweetwaterpink 15th-May-2012 01:46 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, this type of injustice happens far too often. I applaud Columbia for bringing this case to light.

Scalia is an ass and his (and Thomas) appointment to the supreme court has always irked me.

atomic_joe2 15th-May-2012 02:02 pm (UTC)
So sad.
oxymoron67 15th-May-2012 02:23 pm (UTC)
When I was younger, I thought the death penalty made sense, like when John Wayne Gacy was executed.

This was before I learned of all the issues and biases involved: from less than competent defense attorneys to the racial and class biases and everything in between. Now, I just can't support it.
hashishinahooka 15th-May-2012 02:23 pm (UTC)
Yet when Baker was interviewed 20 years later, he said that he hadn't been that sure about the identification as he had trouble telling one Hispanic person apart from another.

ohnotaylor 15th-May-2012 05:36 pm (UTC)
How that guy sleeps at night is beyond me.
maladaptive 15th-May-2012 02:59 pm (UTC)
So Hernandez was arrested THIRTY-NINE TIMES and yet the police didn't know he existed?

Yes, I have lots of faith in the system now.
oceandezignz 15th-May-2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
There is only rage:

girl_fusion 15th-May-2012 04:01 pm (UTC)
Sad sad sad. But not surprising especially in TX since it is mecca for the death penalty -- we're #1 at it but last in almost everything else like education & healthcare, which is great breeding ground for death row inmates. I mean, we have a freakin' governor who says he loses zero sleep over the executions conducted in TX and he executes about ~21 people/year!

I cannot fathom the amount of innocent lives put to death each year in this state. And it is governed by a man who fervently calls himself 'Christian'. /sigh
crossfire 15th-May-2012 04:27 pm (UTC)
This is one of the reasons why I just can't support the death penalty.

Scalia is an asshole.
aviv_b 15th-May-2012 04:33 pm (UTC)
Apparently Scalia doesn't follow the news very carefully.

Northwestern Professor of Journalism David Protess and his students did much the same thing as Professor Liebman. They found evidence to free 5 men on death row in Illinois.

Unlike Texas,Illinois abolished the death penalty last year after TWENTY people on death row had their convictions overturned due to new evidence showing that they were innocent or had been convicted improperly.

mirhanda 15th-May-2012 04:47 pm (UTC)
The thought of an innocent person being imprisoned, much less executed is absolutely revolting to me, as I've stated before. It's hard to even fathom the thought processes of those who think it's just fine and dandy to imprison or execute an innocent person. Frankly, people who think that way are disgusting thugs to me.
ohnotaylor 15th-May-2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
The steadfast supporters of the death penalty will convince themselves of anything in order to justify their blood-lust. I don't believe for a minute that Scalia has never heard of an example of the execution of an innocent person, not for a minute. And if he really hasn't he's purposefully choosing to live in denial, and I say that as a person who's not necessarily against the death penalty (at least in theory).

The idea that innocent people are killed or imprisoned for crimes that they did not commit is reprehensible.
blueshellmaz 15th-May-2012 05:53 pm (UTC)
Since I was a kid shit like this has made me want to go into criminal law. The fact that the people involved don't care about the impact they have is mind boggling. Or maybe I've just been playing too much Phoenix Wright and expect prosecuting attorneys to want the truth over wanting to win. How so many people could do their jobs so poorly is beyond me.

Dammit, Texas.
tinylegacies 15th-May-2012 07:15 pm (UTC)
I've never really actively opposed the death penalty because I do believe there are RARE cases when it is a valid option (i.e. Jeffrey Dahmer, etc).

But stories like this are absolutely why I can't unilateraly support it. How awful.
effervescent 16th-May-2012 04:21 am (UTC)
This is why I don't support the death penalty. How do you live with this sort of thing?
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