Carlos DeLuna: Wrongfully Executed?
From the moment of his arrest to the night of his execution just six and a half years later, Carlos DeLuna maintained his claim of innocence in the 1983 murder of convenience store clerk Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi. An article published May 15, 2012 in the Columbia University Human Rights Law Review sheds new light on this case and seeks to answer haunting questions as to whether Texas executed the wrong person for this brutal and senseless crime. Cataloguing in minute detail everything that went wrong in DeLuna’s case (and everything that could go wrong did), this groundbreaking article by Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and a team of students also provides compelling evidence of the identity of the real killer, a violent and dangerous man who was well-known to law enforcement yet was ridiculed by prosecutors as a “phantom” of DeLuna’s imagination during his trial.
(Pictured Left to Right: Carlos Deluna, Carlos Hernandez)
Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, the article and accompanying materials, including video clips, police records, and notes from 100 witness interviews, can be accessed at www.thewrongcarlos.net.
Los Tocayos Carlos represents one of the most thorough depictions of a criminal investigation and its aftermath in U.S. history, cataloguing in minute detail all the flaws and failures of the system that wrongfully executed Carlos DeLuna. Among the many issues calling into question the reliability of DeLuna’s conviction are:
- A single cross-ethnic eyewitness identification conducted at night, at the crime scene, while the suspect was in the back seat of a police squad car;
- No corroborating forensics and a sloppy crime scene investigation;
- Grossly inadequate representation at the trial and appellate levels, including failure of his court-appointed attorneys – one of whom had never tried a criminal case in court, let alone a capital murder case – to present any witnesses or mitigating evidence during the sentencing phase; and
- Prosecutorial failure to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense.
At the time of his trial, DeLuna claimed that Carlos Hernandez, a man who closely resembled him – and who matched the initial description of a witness who came face-to-face with the killer – had committed the murder. Prosecutors derided his claim as a “lie” and told jurors that there was no Carlos Hernandez. In upholding the conviction and death sentence on appeal, multiple courts said the same thing – Hernandez did not exist. Yet evidence uncovered years after DeLuna’s execution and presented here in painstaking detail reveals not only that Carlos Hernandez existed, but was well-known to police and prosecutors at the time of trial and had a long history of violent crimes similar to the one for which DeLuna was executed. Hernandez’s violence against young Hispanic women in Corpus Christi continued after his “tocayo” (namesake or twin), Carlos DeLuna, went to death row.
Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution is based on an 18-month investigation by Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and a team of students. The article and accompanying materials, including video clips, police records, and notes from 100 witness interviews, can be accessed at www.thewrongcarlos.net.
Download Carlos Deluna Fact Sheet.
Read about other wrongful executions below.
Claude Jones: Wrongfully Executed?
“Claude Jones always claimed that he wasn’t the man who walked into an East Texas liquor store in 1989 and shot the owner. He professed his innocence right up until the moment he was strapped to a gurney in the Texas execution chamber and put to death on Dec. 7, 2000. His murder conviction was based on a single piece of forensic evidence recovered from the crime scene—a strand of hair—that prosecutors claimed belonged to Jones.”
Cameron Todd Willingham: Wrongfully Executed
Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by the State of Texas on February 17, 2004. He had been convicted and sentenced to death for setting a fire to his Corsicana home in 1991 that killed his three young daughters. An investigative report by David Grann that appeared in The New Yorker in September 2009 exhaustively deconstructed every aspect of the case and persuasively illustrated that none of the evidence used to convict Willingham was valid. The article went beyond the forensic science that had been the focus of investigations for the previous six years and debunked every other piece of evidence, including the jailhouse snitch testimony, witness testimony, and circumstantial evidence. The results of Grann’s investigation strongly pointed to Cameron Todd Willingham’s wrongful execution.
Since Willingham’s execution, 32 individuals – including 5 Texans – have been released from death rows nationwide due to evidence of their wrongful conviction (144 people have been released from death rows nationwide since 1973). This includes Ernest Ray Willis, who was exonerated from death row in Texas on October 6, 2004. Willis had been sentenced to death for the 1986 deaths of two women who died in a house fire that was ruled arson. Seventeen years later, Pecos County District Attorney Ori T. White revisited the case after a federal judge overturned Willis’ conviction. White hired an arson specialist to review the original evidence, and the specialist concluded that there was no evidence of arson. In 2004, prosecutors dropped all charges against Willis. The eerily similar cases of Willingham and Willis – and the radically different outcomes in each – serve to highlight the arbitrariness of the Texas death penalty system and lend increased urgency to calls for abolition.
Texas Forensic Science Commission Investigation
The New Yorker piece came on the heels of a report filed with the Texas Forensic Science Commission by fire scientist Craig L. Beyler. The commission was created in 2005 by the state legislature to investigate allegations of professional negligence or misconduct in forensic analysis. In 2008 it agreed to a request from the Innocence Project to examine the possibility of forensic misconduct in the cases of Willingham and Ernest Ray Willis and it later hired Dr. Beyler to review both cases. In his report, Beyler found that the investigators in Willingham’s case had a “poor understanding of fire science” and relied on outdated theories to justify their determination that the fire had been set deliberately. Beyler’s report confirmed what every fire expert who has examined the case since the time of conviction has found: there was no evidence to support the finding of arson. The tragic deaths of Willingham’s children likely were the result of a terrible accident, not a crime.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission was set to meet on October 2, 2009 to hear from fire expert Craig Beyler. It had planned to issue its own findings with regard to the allegations of forensic misconduct in the Willingham case in 2010. Two days before the meeting, however, Texas Governor Rick Perry abruptly moved to replace three commission members, including the chair. The newly-appointed chair, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, cancelled the meeting so that the new members could get up to speed on the case and other issues. In April 2010, the commission established a four-person subcommittee that would examine the case and, eventually, report its conclusions to the full body. Because of its small size, the subcommittee was not subject to state laws requiring open meetings and was allowed to conduct its work in private. A preliminary report issued by the subcommittee in July 2010 admitted “flaws” in the science used to convict Willingham but found that arson investigators did not commit misconduct or negligence in relying on outdated standards at the time.
On April 15, 2011, the Texas Forensic Science Commission issued its report on the convictions of Cameron Todd Willingham and Ernest Willis, recommending more education and training for fire investigators and implementing procedures to review old cases. In July 2011, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion in response to questions from the commission about jurisdiction and authority. The opinion prohibits the commission from investigating “specific items of evidence that were tested or offered into evidence prior to” September 1, 2005.
On September 27, 2013, relatives for Cameron Todd Willingham filed an amended petition with the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles asking the state to posthumously pardon him. Family members urged the state to conduct an investigation into Willingham’s wrongful execution based on newly discovered evidence that points to possible false testimony at his trial and possible prosecutorial misconduct.
On February 28, 2014, The Innocence Project argued that newly discovered documents undermine the credibility of key witness, jailhouse informant Johnny Webb, who testified that Cameron Todd Willingham told Webb he killed his daughters in 1991. The New York-based nonprofit said it discovered a handwritten note that would contradict claims made at trial by Webb and prosecutor John Jackson that Webb did not receive consideration for his testimony. “It’s astonishing that 10 years after Todd Willingham was executed we are still uncovering evidence showing what a grave injustice this case represents,” Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project’s co-director, said in a statement.
The Innocence Project is asking concerned citizens to write letters asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Rick Perry to conduct an investigation into the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. An online form can be found at the link – http://www.capwiz.com/innocenceproject/issues/alert/?alertid=62949836&type=CU.
Resources on the Cameron Todd Willingham Case
- “Analysis of the Fire Investigation Methods and Procedures Used in the Criminal Arson Cases against Ernest Ray Willis and Cameron Todd Willingham”- Craig L. Beyler, Ph.D., published August 17, 2009 for the Texas Forensic Science Commission. Details the testimonies and forensic work conducted in the Willingham case which led to his conviction and execution. Dr. Beyler’s findings suggest the fire leading to the death of Willingham’s children was not in fact arson. http://www.docstoc.com/docs/document-preview.aspx?doc_id=10401390
- “Report on the Peer Review on the Expert Testimony in the Cases of State of Texas v. Cameron Todd Willingham and State of Texas v Ernest Ray Willis”- Published in the Spring of 2006, this report, commissioned by the Innocence Project, identifies and details the factors that led to the Willingham and Willis convictions. This report was a secondary review, initiated after the first review had been compiled and presented to the Governor prior to Willingham’s execution in early 2004. http://www.innocenceproject.org/docs/ArsonReviewReport.pdf
- “Trial by Fire: Did Texas execute an innocent man?”- New Yorker article by David Grann, September 7, 2009. An extensive 16,000-word expose regarding the events leading up to Willingham’s sentence, his time spent on death row, and his execution. This piece supplies an especially human element to Willingham and those involved in and around the investigation. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/07/090907fa_fact_grann
- “Ask the Author Live: David Grann”- A follow-up interview with New Yorker journalist David Grann in response to his piece “Trial by Fire” (see above). The interview was held on August 31 2009 and posts detailed questions and responses regarding the Willingham case, the whereabouts of involved individuals, and the author’s feelings toward the criminal justice system. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/ask/2009/08/questions-for-grann.html
- “Man executed on disproved forensics, Fire that killed his 3 children could have been accidental”-Chicago Tribune article by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley, published December 9, 2004. The original editorial piece which revisited the Willingham case months after his execution. The investigative journalists detail the events leading up to Willingham’s execution from a postmortem perspective and argue that the information provided in fire expert Gerald Hurst’s report was wrongfully ignored. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0412090169dec09,0,7443588,full.story
- Expert says fire for which father was executed was not arson”-a Chicago Tribune article by Steve Mills published August 25, 2009. A follow-up piece to the original Tribune investigative report which suggested Willingham’s wrongful execution. The piece covers the extensive list of forensic evidence, including credible sources, which point to Willingham’s innocence. http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-tc-nw-texas-execute-0824-082aug25,0,5812073.story
- “Wrongly Executed?”- a Nightline special report detailing the Cameron Todd Willingham case and the possibility of Willingham’s wrongful execution. http://abcnews.go.com/nightline
- “Execution opponents hope Texas case will be US turning point”- by Lucile Malandain for the American Foreign Press, published September 6, 2009. This article articulates the position and sentiments of anti-death penalty organizations in light of new information regarding the Cameron Todd Willingham case. http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iMISLGdBGPA7DaDe79_Sd5pwYPow
- “Man convicted of murder, executed over arson that wasn’t, scientist says”- an Austin American-Statesman article by Chuck Lindell, dated August 26, 2009, detailing the specifics addressed in the report submitted by Dr. Craig Beyler to the Texas Forensic Science Commission, as well as the implication such a report could have for the State of Texas in regards to faulty forensics leading to wrongful convictions and executions. http://www.statesman.com/search/content/news/stories/local/2009/08/26/0826arson.html?cxntlid=inform_sr
- “Up in smoke”- An article for the Houston Chronicle, published September 1, 2009, detailing the Willingham case in light of new information provided by the David Grann investigative report and Byler’s fire report. The Chronicle article suggests alternatives for the commission which may prevent future cases such as Willingham’s. http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/6598054.html
- “Landmark case that goes to the heart of a state’s right to kill”– international coverage of the Willingham execution by the British newspaper, The Independent, September 19, 2009. This report details the inconsistencies in the investigation leading to Willingham’s conviction and execution, furthermore drawing attention to the flawed representation oftentimes provided by legal aid which can result in wrongful convictions. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/landmark-case-that-goes-to-the-heart-of-a-states-right-to-kill-1790025.html
- “Texas May Have Executed Innocent Man”-a National Public Radio interview with journalist David Grann, conducted for the show “All Things Considered” on September 2, 2009. In the interview, Grann details the findings of his investigative report, arguing that the forensic science used in the Willingham case was based on outdated forensic “folklore” which resulted in the possible execution of a “legally and factually innocent person.” http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112488253
- “Report: Faulty fire investigation led to execution”- an Associated Press piece by Jamie Stengel, dated August 26, 2009. Address the released report by Dr. Beyler for the Texas Forensic Science Commission, with reference to scientific findings by the Innocence Project in 2005 as well as comments by members of Willingham’s family. http://www.newsday.com/report-faulty-fire-investigation-led-to-execution-1.1397126
- “Report faults Texas men’s arson convictions”- Dallas Morning News report by Christy Hoppe, published August 26, 2009. This news report addresses the surrounding doubt in Willingham’s conviction and execution, highlighting the inconsistencies relating to the manner in which Willingham’s appeal was denied when just months later a fellow death row inmate was released from prison, on similar charges, when a separate Beyler report advised that the forensics used were faulty. http://www.txcn.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/DN-fire_26tex.ART.State.Edition1.4bd7fd5.html
- “Questions about an Execution”-Editorial by the New York Times, August 30, 2009, which references the official report issued by Craig Beyler. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/opinion/31mon2.html
- “Innocent But Dead”- an Op-Ed from Bob Herbert for the New York Times, August 31, 2009. A more contextual, fact-based editorial, relating to the events leading up to the Willingham fire, with reference to the original report published by Gerald Hurst. Also included are Dr. Craig Beyler’s most recent scientific findings, arguing of a wrongful execution. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/01/opinion/01herbert.html?_r=1
- “Reasonable Doubt (the court of public opinion)”- This piece, by Aaron Haas for the San Antonio Current (September 16, 2009), discusses the various inconsistencies surrounding the administration of the death penalty, including the last-minute appeal made by fire expert Gerald Hurst on behalf of Todd Willingham. The piece details the history of capital punishment since it was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976 with specific regard to the ways in which the issue has grown to be viewed as a problem by both those who support and those who oppose it. http://sacurrent.com/news/story.asp?id=70532
- “Not Innocent Enough”- Slate Magazine article by Dahlia Lithwick posted September 5, 2009. This piece exposes the Constitutional and legal implications of the Willingham case in light of the New Yorker article “Trial by Fire” and the Byler. Ms. Lithwick argues that despite the potential proposed by a wrongful conviction and execution of Willingham, the current legal system as overseen by the United States Supreme Court will not impose a change to the current criminal justice system. http://www.slate.com/id/2227222
- “Innocent, but Executed” – a Huffington Post opinion article by columnist Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, August 30 2009. This piece examines the validity of Willingham’s execution in light of the New Yorker investigation by David Grann, and calls for an overhaul of the criminal justice system to prevent any future faulty convictions or executions. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barry-scheck/innocent-but-executed_b_272327.html
- “The Troubling Case of Cameron Todd Willingham”- an editorial piece from the Dallas Morning News posted August 28, 2009, responding directly to the findings in the Byler report. http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/editorials/stories/DN-death_31edi.State.Edition1.1bd1063.html
- “Error-prone death penalty system ensnares innocent”- A piece written in the September 18, 2009 issue of the Houston Chronicle by American Civil Liberties Union Capital Punishment Project directors which details a number of state executions that, like Willingham, are believed to have been conducted despite substantial evidence suggesting innocence. http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/editorial/outlook/6626188.html
- “Is the death penalty defensible?”– a conservative blog article from The Hill, September 1, 2009, which details the shift in position from a former death penalty proponent to a newly ordained advocate against a flawed justice system in which innocent individuals are put to death. http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/crime/56927-is-the-death-penalty-defensi
- “Willingham guilt never in doubt”- Guest Commentary by the Hon. John Jackson for the Corsicana Daily Sun, August 28, 2009. An opposition piece to the current investigation suggesting innocence, Judge Jackson, who was a prosecutor in the case, argues for Willingham’s guilt regardless of flawed forensic work. http://www.corsicanadailysun.com/opinion/local_story_241210447.html
- “Time to face the truth in the Willingham case” by Nina Morrison of the Innocence Project dated September 1, 2009. In this response to “Willingham guilt never in doubt”, Morrison argues against each point of guilt claimed by Judge Jackson, claiming the facts of the Willingham case suggest innocence. http://deathpenaltyblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2009/09/time-to-face-the-truth-in-the.html
- “David Grann: The Prosecution Defends Itself”-a rebuttal by New Yorker writer David Grann, September 4, 2009, in response to Judge Jackson’s editorial in the Corsicana Daily Sun. Grann reiterates Willingham’s innocence though the work uncovered in his investigative report, alongside which he negates every additional argument Jackson claimed resulted in Willingham’s guilt, despite “undeniably flawed” forensics. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2009/09/david-grann-response-to-jackson.html
- “Administering the Death Penalty: The Case of Cameron Todd Willingham”- An opinion piece for the New Ledger online magazine, written by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 8, 2009. This argues for a reexamination of the accuracy of science pertaining to the death penalty in light of David Grann’s expose for the New Yorker. http://newledger.com/2009/09/administering-the-death-penalty-the-case-of-camer%0Aon-todd-willingham
- “A lethal failure of justice in Texas”– An opinion piece written for My San Antonio News, September 21, 2009, which addresses the Willingham case in light of the New Yorker article, and draws attention to the possible implications of Texas executing an innocent man. http://www.mysanantonio.com/opinion/59776622.html
- “Making forensic science scientific”- An editorial in the Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2009, advocating for the nees of a national board of forensic science, to be administered by Congress, in an effort to establish scientific standards by which investigations should be handled to prevent further possibilities for wrongful sentencing like that in the Willingham case. http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/editorials/la-ed-forensics21-2009sep21,0,2528495.story
- “Perry defends disputed ’04 execution of Corsicana man”-This article for The Dallas Morning News, September 19, 2009, reports the first response given by Texas Governor Rick Perry in regards to recent evidence which suggests the governor knowingly allowed the lethal injection of an innocent man. The article additionally details the Willingham case from the fire accident that led to Willingham’s arrest, through the recently released New Yorker article. http://www.txcn.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/texassouthwest/stories/DN-perry_19tex.ART.State.Edition2.4bf3d78.html
- “Statement from Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project”– The following is The Innocence Project’s official response to statements of no wrongdoing by Governor Perry despite consistent, independent expert reports which indicate that the forensic evidence used to convict Willingham of arson was based on scientific inconsistencies. Scheck argues that the United States should establish a regulatory body for the administration of forensic science standards. http://www.innocenceproject.org/
- “County forensic examiner caught up in controversy over 2004 execution”– South Texas news source, The Monitor, gives a comprehensive report regarding the recent replacement of three Texas Forensic Science Commission members. The committee was reorganized by Governor Rick Perry two days before a hearing on the arson evidence used to convict Cameron Todd Willingham. This article provides information on the individuals who will be replacing the former board members and the implications for the governor and the commission. http://www.themonitor.com/articles/examiner-31254-execution-caught.html
- “Why Did Texas Gut Its Forensics Commission?”– an article issued by Time magazine, October 6, 2009, which addresses the questions surrounding Texas Governor Rick Perry’s last minute decision to replace three members from the Texas Forensic Science Commission, including Chairman Sam Basset. The change in membership came just two days before the committee was to hear testimony from forensic expert Craig Beyler. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1927855,00.html?xid=rss-topstor
- “Hutchison chides Perry on execution panel delay”- a response to Governor Perry’s recent replacement of three Texas Forensic Science Commission members made by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson who is running opposite Perry for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. http://blogs.chron.com/texaspolitics/archives/2009/10/hutchison_chide.html Additional statements made by Hutchinson can be found here: http://www.statesman.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/firstreading/ent http://www.amarillo.com/stories/100609/new_news12.shtmlries/2009/10/06/_austin_weather_40_percent.html
- “Texas Governor Rick Perry Is Trying to Cover Up the Execution of an Innocent Man”- an article issued by the Texas Observer which discusses the implications of Governor Perry’s dismissal of three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, days before the board was to hear testimony by forensic expert Craig Beyler regarding his report about the Willingham case. http://standdown.typepad.com/weblog/2009/10/texas-governor-rick-perry-is-trying-to-cover-up-the-execution-of-an-innocent-man.html