It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss 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 in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.
— Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, 2006, Kansas v. Marsh
At 11 p.m. Monday night, the Columbia University Human Rights Review published its Spring 2012 issue, comprised entirely of a massive research project by Professor James Liebman and 12 students, examining the conviction and execution in Texas of a man named Carlos De Luna. The team contends, and backs up with a wealth of irrefutable evidence, that Texas executed an innocent man for the crimes of another.
“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 defense 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.”
Several articles, which I’ll link to below, continue the story of what happened next, but the basics are something like this: Liebman and his students began piecing together a profile of Carlos Hernandez. He was an alcoholic with a tendency to become violent. He always carried a lock-blade buck knife. He was arrested 39 times over the years and spent most of his adult life on parole. He was never put in prison, likely because he was used as a police informant. He was known to have bragged about killing a woman named Lopez and getting someone else to take the fall for him.
The researchers also found an incredible array of gross mistakes, the kind that should never happen when someone’s life is on the line. For example:
1. There was no DNA evidence linking DeLuna to the case, despite a very bloody crime scene.Photos show blood spattered three feet high on the walls of the gas station counter, yet none was on DeLuna’s clothes or shoes.
2. The detectives investigating the crime scene did such a terrible job that no usable fingerprints were taken from the scene.
3. None of the items found at the scene, including a cigarette butt, chewing gum, a comb, beer cans and a button, were tested for saliva or blood.
4. No scrapings of the victim’s fingernails were taken.
5. There was a bloody footprint at the scene from a man’s shoe. It was never measured.
6. Less than two hours after the murder, the police chief ordered all the detectives to leave the scene and allowed the owner to wash it down, washing away vital evidence.
7. When Liebman and his team asked to see all the stored evidence in the case so it could be tested for DNA, he was told it had disappeared.
“Maybe one day the truth will come out. I’m hoping it will. If I end up getting executed for this, I don’t think it’s right.
In an excellent analysis of the case in The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen points out that”the district attorney lobbyists will argue that capital cases, in Texas and elsewhere, are handled much more professionally today than they were 30 years ago. And because both of the Carloses are now long dead, there isn’t much of a media hook here, either. Posthumous exonerations don’t give the cameras the just-out-of-prison “walk shot” television producers love.”
However, what the terrifying and honest truth is that there are currently a wealth of other cases, including recent ones, where these issues have arisen. Just think of Troy Davis, Hank Skinner and Cameron Todd Willingham, another executed Texas inmate who was almost undoubtedly innocent. In fact, Cohen reached out to legal experts and found a list of just a few cases with some of these very same glaring mistakes. They include:
- D’Ambrosio v. Bagley (Ohio- faulty crime scene analysis, information withheld by law enforcement, other known viable suspects.)
- Elmore v. Ozmint (South Carolina–ineffective counsel, unreliable eyewitnesses, evidence withheld)
- Keith v. Bobby (Ohio– no DNA, blood or fingerprint evidence, other known viable suspects)
- Noling v. Bradshaw (Ohio–unreliable eyewitness identification, other known viable suspects)
- Arkansas v. Howard (Arkansas — DNA withheld)
- Skinner v. Switzer (Texas — DNA withheld following Supreme Court intervention.)
I would encourage anyone and everyone who sees this to take a moment to read about Carlos DeLuna. Because no longer can Americans say that the death penalty is without flaws. And as Cohen said, “No one can ever say again with a straight face that America doesn’t execute innocent men. No one.”