Did Texas Execute Another Innocent Man?

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

An exhaustive investigation from Columbia Law School argues yes.

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 . . .

All the evidence the Columbia team has gathered on the DeLuna case has been placed on the internet with open public access . . .

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.”

You can read the book and review the evidence here.

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29 Responses to “Did Texas Execute Another Innocent Man?”

  1. #1 |  SJE | 

    I’d like to hear Scalia’s take on this article, since he believes that there has not been any actual evidence that the wrong man was executed. Here we have a case where the actual murderer (a) had a history of violence, especially against women (b) was known to carry the type of knife used in the murder (c) CONFESSED to the murder, and at least one other. The executed man was convicted solely on a single eyewitness – No physical evidence.

  2. #2 |  CyniCAl | 

    End the death penalty NOW.

  3. #3 |  Whim | 

    Well, this is one execution that can’t be blamed on Gov. George W. Bush, because Bill Clements was governor of Texas at the time.

    Of course, Bush can be blamed for virtually everything else. Bush the Lesser was profoundly tone-deaf when it came to criminal justice matters. He continued and deepened the trend of curtailing Federal Pardons and commutations that started under Ronald Reagan.

  4. #4 |  SJE | 

    #3: what has this got to do with W?

  5. #5 |  John | 

    Well shit, if you perform an action with a nonzero probability of a negative outcome enough trials the negative outcome will eventually occur. Who knew? The idea that a judge might honestly think this NEVER happens just blows my mind. Then I remember it’s Scalia.

  6. #6 |  Dante | 

    There is no justice in America’s criminal justice system. Just criminals.

  7. #7 |  30 year lawyer | 

    The culprit here, as always, is a spineless, elected prosecutor who doesn’t understand that prosecutors are “seekers of Justice” (the state’s only interest) and not legal “hit men.”They have absolute immunity and complete discretion for a reason (and it’s not re-election).

  8. #8 |  RBS | 

    #4 Because everything is Bush’s fault, what year do you think this is anyway…

  9. #9 |  TFG | 

    Meanwhile, Obama’s drone army executed dozens.

    An exhaustive investigation from Columbia Law School is not forthcoming.

  10. #10 |  hilzoy fangirl | 

    #9: http://www.law.columbia.edu/human-rights-institute/initiatives/counterterrorism/targetedkilling

  11. #11 |  David | 

    #9: Who needs an investigation? Obama ordered drone strikes which led to the deaths of dozens of people, including “collateral damage,” i.e. innocent victims. This is accepted as fact by all concerned. Doesn’t really take a book.

  12. #12 |  Leland D. Davis | 

    Of course, the death penalty gets more attention, but innocent people in the US not uncommonly receive long prison sentences, which can be nearly as devastating as being executed. So I am not sure if the prospect of having executed an innocent man is an argument against the death penalty so much as it is an argument about the need to reform our entire criminal justice system.

  13. #13 |  Bob | 

    From what little I’ve seen reading the book so far, it’s clear the guy was completely innocent and the “Investigation” was an incompetent farce.

    Unless, of course, you look at it from the point of view that the Police’s job is to grab the first guy that comes along and twist the evidence to fit… ignoring obvious leads to the contrary.

  14. #14 |  Aresen | 

    Right now, I’d like to hear from one of those law-and-order tough guys who repeatedly assure us that “there are so many checks and balances in the system that an innocent man would never be executed.”

  15. #15 |  Aresen | 

    WRT to the Drone War comments, it is exceedingly unlikely that either BHO or GWB will ever pay a price for their respective roles.

    However, many innocents in the Middle East already have and many Americans may in the future when someone decides to ‘avenge’ the former upon the latter. Of course, that ‘someone’ will be described as a “ruthless terrorist”.

  16. #16 |  Radley Balko | 

    <em.So I am not sure if the prospect of having executed an innocent man is an argument against the death penalty so much as it is an argument about the need to reform our entire criminal justice system.

    Agreed. The one important counter to that point, though, is that there’s always the chance that an innocent person with a life sentence could eventually be exonerated.

  17. #17 |  Radley Balko | 

    Meanwhile, Obama’s drone army executed dozens.

    An exhaustive investigation from Columbia Law School is not forthcoming.

    vs.

    #9: http://www.law.columbia.edu/human-rights-institute/initiatives/counterterrorism/targetedkilling

    Ouch.

  18. #18 |  Matt I. | 

    In support of #1, I just wanted to make it clear that Nino doesn’t believe that an innocent victim has EVER been executed by the state.

  19. #19 |  Judas Peckerwood | 

    #10: Damn, I think I’m in love!

  20. #20 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Obama ordered drone strikes which led to the deaths of dozens of people, including “collateral damage,” i.e. innocent victims. This is accepted as fact by all concerned.

    The Joker already explained that this was all according to plan, so no one cares.

    “there are so many checks and balances in the system that an innocent man would never be executed.”

    Their narrative is quickly changing to “you gotta break some eggs to keep ‘Murica safe”. They don’t change their position. They just slightly shift their weight. Much better for them than the alternative.

    If you outlaw the death penalty, my bet is that the prison population will grow rapidly from even it’s bloated levels today. The state needs the Hammer and Colosseum.

  21. #21 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    An exhaustive investigation from Columbia Law School is not forthcoming.

    Reminds me of the boiler plate “…meanwhile Radley doesn’t investigate Koch brothers yada yada…”

  22. #22 |  SJE | 

    #21: Don’t forget its brother from the right: “Balko is a liberal stooge because he writes for HuffPost”

  23. #23 |  SPO | 

    Komisarjevsky deserves to die.

  24. #24 |  RCnottheCola | 

    His statements before his death make me wish the profession of Speaker For The Dead existed. If unfamiliar read the book of the same name by Orson Scott Card.

  25. #25 |  StrangeOne | 

    #20 Boyd

    There is actually not that many people on death row in the states. There are about 3200 inmates on death row. Out of about 2 million prisoners in a country with a population of 400 million.

    Personally I think the powers that be don’t want to get rid of the death penalty for another reason. If all those law and non-profit organizations stop focusing so much on trying to get people off death row they might start dedicating resources to finding out how many of the other 2 million prisoners are innocent.

    The Innocence Project estimates that about 10% of death row inmates are innocent just based on the ones they’ve been able to prove from DNA. Given that death penalty cases generally have much higher standards of evidence than non-death penalty cases, its highly likely that the general prison population has a much higher rate of innocents incarcerated.

    The death penalty is a fringe issue that the media can be easily distracted with. It’s something politicians can have meaningless debates over while total ignoring the monumental flaws present in the rest of the justice system.

  26. #26 |  Alex | 

    #5 John: To refine #1 SJE, Scalia hasn’t said that no innocent man has been executed; he said that there hasn’t been a case where an executed man’s innocence is *clear.*

    I can only imagine that the statement is statistically ignorant by design. No doubt Scalia can easily maintain his sense of doubt in this case as well.

  27. #27 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    There is actually not that many people on death row in the states. There are about 3200 inmates on death row. Out of about 2 million prisoners in a country with a population of 400 million.

    How is that “not many”?

    Agree with the rest of your post completely.

  28. #28 |  Irving Washington | 

    Agreed. The one important counter to that point, though, is that there’s always the chance that an innocent person with a life sentence could eventually be exonerated.

    I can think of a few killers about whom there is absolutely no doubt about their guilt, and their horrific stories are a primary reason why Texas will never get rid of the death penalty (fwiw, I think we should get rid of it even for the worst cases if for no other reason than it’s a total pain in the ass). But investigations like these and reporting on death penalty flaws may educate Texas jurors on the kinds of evidentiary problems that make the death penalty inappropriate in many of the cases in which it is sought. Who knows, one day it might even get through to the prosecutors.

  29. #29 |  StrangeOne | 

    Boyd,

    I was countering the idea that without the death penalty prison population would surge. There’s not enough people on death row being executed to meaningfully effect overall prison population.

    If you meant that without the death penalty prosecutors and judges would be more inclined to push harsher and longer prison sentences, then I just misinterpreted your original statement.

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