A phantom or the killer?

Part 2 in the series on Carlos De Luna.

A phantom or the killer?

A prosecutor said Carlos Hernandez didn’t exist. But he did, and his MO fit the crime. Second of three parts.

By Steve Mills and Maurice Possley
Tribune staff reporters
Published June 26, 2006

By the time jurors sat down to decide the fate of Carlos De Luna, there was little to debate.

Though no physical evidence linked him to the fatal stabbing of gas station clerk Wanda Lopez, two eyewitnesses did.

One said he observed De Luna outside the station with a knife; the other said he saw him leaving the blood-spattered scene.

Then there was the audio recording of Lopez’s 911 call, which gave little clue to the killer’s identity but graphically documented the attack and Lopez’s frantic screams.

“I had nightmares about it for a long time,” one juror, Shirley Bradley, recalled. “That tape had a shock-value effect on us. … It was a clear-cut case.”

Finally, jurors rejected De Luna’s testimony that another man, Carlos Hernandez, was the real killer. The lead prosecutor scoffed at De Luna’s assertion, calling Hernandez a “phantom.”

But the jurors who found De Luna guilty and then sentenced him to death in July 1983, five months after his arrest, didn’t hear the whole truth.

Hernandez did exist. Not only was he well-known to police in this Gulf Coast city as a violent felon, but the co-prosecutor at De Luna’s trial and the lead detective in the case knew Hernandez too.

Four years earlier, they confronted him when he emerged as a leading suspect in a case they handled together–the murder of another Corpus Christi woman.

Jurors heard none of that information. The prosecutor sat silently as his colleague branded Hernandez a figment of De Luna’s imagination.

Yet a Tribune investigation shows that the circumstances of Lopez’s murder eerily echo the details of Hernandez’s lengthy rap sheet–gas station robberies, knife attacks and several assaults on women.

In 1979, he was arrested as a suspect in the slaying of a woman found strangled in her van, an “X” carved in her back, but was released for lack of evidence.

Two months after Lopez’s murder on Feb. 4, 1983, Hernandez was arrested while lurking behind a convenience store. In his pocket was a knife.

And over the next six years, while De Luna waited in vain for his legal appeals to keep him from the execution chamber, Hernandez’s list of crimes continued to grow.

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