Texas may have executed the wrong Carlos
An investigation by students at Columbia Law School has uncovered evidence strongly suggesting that Texas may have executed the wrong man for the 1983 killing of a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi.
The team, led by Professor James Liebman, found previously suppressed evidence that appeared to exonerate Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in 1989. The Columbia team’s findings – along with court documents, recordings, evidence, and interviews – are published on TheWrongCarlos.net.
DeLuna, a Hispanic man with “childlike intelligence”, was convicted of stabbing and killing Wanda Lopez with a lock-blade buck knife at a Corpus Christi gas station in 1983. DeLuna was sentenced to death despite no forensic evidence, such as fingerprints, linking him to the crime. Instead, prosecutors primarily relied on the testimony of an Anglo witness who saw a Hispanic man fleeing the scene in the dark.
“No one cared enough about the defendant or the victim to make sure they caught the right guy,” said Liebman, a leading deathpenalty litigationexpert and the Simon H. Rifkind Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. “Everything that could go wrong in a death penalty case did go wrong for DeLuna.”
DeLuna, even at the death chamber, maintained his innocence and repeatedly told police and prosecutors that another Carlos – Carlos Hernandez – had committed Lopez’s murder.
There were good reasons to suspect Hernandez, with whom DeLuna was supposed to meet that day at a strip club across the street from the Shamrock gas station where Lopez worked.
Hernandez, who bore striking physical resemblance to DeLuna, had a history of violence against women, including threatening his girlfriend with a knife in 1981 and attacking his wife with an ax in 1983. Hernandez was also suspected in the 1979 killing of Dahlia Sauceda but never stood trial for her brutal death. Hernandez also displayed an affinity for knives; he was carrying a knife in at least 13 of his arrests.
One of the evidence suppressed during DeLuna’s trial is the audio recording of police dispatches showing police pursuing a suspect matching Hernandez’s description 30 minutes after the crime. The witness stated that the assailant had a mustache. DeLuna was clean-shaven whereas Hernandez wore a mustache.
But despite the evidence discrepancies and Hernandez’s long criminal record, prosecutors did not take DeLuna’s assertions of innocence seriously, dismissing his claims as the “some other dude named Carlos” defense.
Although police were already well-acquainted with Carlos Hernandez even before Lopez’s death, the Columbia team found that there appeared to be little effort by police and prosecutors to look into whether Hernandez could have committed the crime. The fingerprints collected at the gas station crime scene were “very, very bad” quality, and thus investigators could not compare the crime scene prints with Hernandez’s fingerprints that were on file to verify or eliminate him as a suspect.
“As a result, there were no matches to anyone named Carlos Hernandez – or to Carlos DeLuna, for that matter,” the report pointed out.
However, the lack of “quality” forensic evidence did not stop prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty against DeLuna.
Meanwhile, as DeLuna was sent to death row, Hernandez roamed free in Corpus Christi. Hernandez was even heard bragging about killing Lopez.
“I heard Carlos Hernandez once talking about a stabbing or a killing that had happened…that a tocayo [namesake] had taken the blame for it,” said Janie Adrian, neighbor of Carlos Hernandez. “…That he had stabbed [Wanda Lopez].”
Crying, Adrian explained to the Columbia Law School team, “I didn’t want to say nothing because I was afraid he would find me or something and he would come if he knew that we knew more than what we’re supposed – what we had heard.”
The authors of the report suggested that Texas prosecutors may have wrongfully condemned an innocent man to death while allowing the true killer to continue terrorizing the residents of Corpus Christi.
In 1989, the same year DeLuna was put to death by lethal injection, Hernandez attacked Dina Ybanez with a lock-blade buck knife – a similar type of knife used to kill Lopez. Ten years after DeLuna’s execution, Hernandez died of liver cirrhosis in prison where he was serving time for attacking his neighbor with a kitchen knife.
“Sadly, DeLuna’s story is not unique,” Liebman said. “The very same factors that sent DeLuna to his death—faulty eyewitness testimony, shoddy legal representation, and prosecutorial misfeasance—continue to put innocent people at risk of execution today.”