Talking Points for Letters to the Editor and Letters to Elected Officials
Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution
One of the most thorough investigations of a criminal case in U.S. history uncovers evidence that Carlos DeLuna, executed by the State of Texas in 1989, was likely innocent.
- The Columbia Human Rights Law Review article Los Tocayos Carlos, by Professor James Liebman and a team of students, documents how an innocent person was executed and the real killer was left on the streets to terrorize his community for years to come.
- The case of Carlos DeLuna should give everyone pause, even the most hardened death penalty supporter.
Everything that could go wrong in a death penalty case did go wrong for Carlos DeLuna, a poor Hispanic man with childlike intelligence who maintained his innocence for the 1983 murder of convenience store clerk Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi from the time of his arrest to his execution six years later. 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.
There not only is substantial evidence that the State of Texas executed the wrong person for this crime, but also that law enforcement knowingly turned a blind eye to the identity of the real perpetrator and left a dangerous, violent man free to terrorize the community and harm more innocent victims.
- Evidence revealed in the groundbreaking article corroborates DeLuna’s claim that another “Carlos” – Carlos Hernandez – committed the crime.
- Police arrested DeLuna after a 40-minute manhunt. A police audiotape – suppressed at trial – shows that they chased another suspect for 30 minutes who matched initial eyewitness descriptions of a different man – Carlos Hernandez.
- At trial, prosecutors derided Carlos Hernandez as a “phantom” of DeLuna’s imagination.
- Appeals courts repeatedly said the same thing – Carlos Hernandez did not exist.
- Evidence uncovered years after DeLuna’s execution reveals not only that Hernandez existed, but that he was well-known to police and prosecutors at the time of DeLuna’s trial, had a long history of violent crimes, and bragged about committing the murder for which his “tocayo” (namesake or twin), Carlos DeLuna, was sent to death row and executed.
Carlos DeLuna’s wrongful conviction and execution highlight many of the flaws that persist in the broken death penalty system.
- Since 1973, 140 people – including 12 in Texas – have been exonerated from death rows nationwide due to evidence of their wrongful conviction. For most, it took decades to secure their exonerations.
- All of the factors that sent DeLuna to his death – faulty eyewitness testimony, shoddy legal representation, and prosecutorial misconduct – continue to put innocent people on death row today. Cameron Willingham, Ruben Cantu, Gary Graham, and Troy Davis, to name only a few, were executed despite doubts about their guilt.
- When an innocent person is convicted, the real killer is left free to commit more crimes, which is what happened in this tragic case.
- This case begs the question of whether this could happen again. The unequivocal answer is “yes.”
- The only way to ensure that we don’t repeat these fatal mistakes is to end the death penalty altogether.
This article is particularly timely given growing unease with capital punishment and movement away from use of the death penalty.
- Texas is steadily moving away from use of the death penalty as prosecutors and juries embrace alternatives that punish the truly guilty and protect society.
- Last year, the state carried the fewest executions since 1996 and death sentences in Texas remained at a historic low level, when just eight people were sentenced to death statewide.
- Overall, new death sentences in Texas have declined more than 70% since 2003 and have become isolated to a small number of jurisdictions.
- Nationally, momentum has clearly shifted towards repeal. Connecticut just became the fifth state in five years to abolish capital punishment and repeal is on the ballot in California this fall. Nine states are studying or considering repeal of their death penalty laws.