The Execution of An Innocent Man

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

Carlos De Luna (left) and Carlos Hernandez

Carlos De Luna (left) and Carlos Hernandez

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.


 Ed Pilkington of The Guardian does a good job summarizing the facts of the case:

“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.

Carlos DeLuna mugshot

Carlos DeLuna in a file photo from the Corpus Christi Police Department.

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.”

Carlos Hernandez in a file photo from the Corpus Christi Police Department.

Carlos Hernandez in a file photo from the Corpus Christi Police Department.

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.

—Carlos DeLuna

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:

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.”

Related reading:

Yes, America, We Have Executed an Innocent Man

The Wrong Carlos: How Texas Sent an Innocent Man to His Death

Carlos De Luna Execution: Texas Put To Death An Innocent Man, Columbia University Team Says

Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution

Why It’s Constitutional to Execute an Innocent Man

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

5 thoughts on “The Execution of An Innocent Man

  1. Terrible.

    After reading this (I’m a subscriber) I found Rev Carroll Pickett’s Blog about Deluna’s final moments…

  2. Reblogged this on Wobbly Warrior's Blog and commented:
    Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a dishonest elitist. He knows the variety of ways that prosecutors and their supervisors have abused their absolute immunity from prosecution to frame and sometimes execute innocent men and women.

    Scalia knows how powerful a lobby has to be to get the ear of Congress or a column inch in a major metropolitan newspaper. The so-called “abolition lobby” he describes is loose-knit organizations with shoe-string budgets and tends to reverently whisper the names of innocents that were fried alive or put down with less dignity than rabid dogs. Like Gerald Stano. Like Linroy Bottoson. Like Carlos De Luna.

    Scalia would be mistaken to believe that those that whisper will settle for anything less than complete justice, including the prosecution, conviction and incarceration of conviction-corruption-complicit judges, at every level of “service.”

  3. mephitic says:

    Good article thank you

  4. lynn morrow says:

    A very tragic story with a tragic ending! There are definitely flaws in our system!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: