The new issue of Columbia Human Rights Law Review documents how on December 8, 1989, the state of Texas executed an innocent man in a case of mistaken identities.
The journal devotes its entire issue to document a six-year investigation by Professor James Liebman and 12 students showing how Carlos DeLuna was executed for a crime committed by Carlos Hernandez.
Reporting for The Guardian, Ed Pilkington writes how these two Carloses "were not just namesakes" (tocayos in Spanish), "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."
DeLuna maintained his innocence up to the moment of his execution, and identified Hernandez as the killer.
Liebman's investigation found that "it was a house of cards. We found that everything that could go wrong did go wrong."
The report also documents that Texas Death House Chaplain Carroll Pickett, who had officiated at 95 executions including DeLuna's, was haunted by the execution of DeLuna and became an outspoken critic of the death penalty.
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Ed Pilkington writing for The Guardian
The wrong Carlos: how Texas sent an innocent man to his death
Groundbreaking Columbia law school study sets out in shocking detail the flaws that led to Carlos DeLuna's execution in 1989
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. [...]
At his 1983 trial, Carlos DeLuna told the jury that on the day of the murder he'd run into Hernandez, who he'd known for the previous five years. The two men, who both lived in the southern Texas town of Corpus Christi, stopped off at a bar. Hernandez went over to a gas station, the Shamrock, to buy something, and when he didn't return DeLuna went over to see what was going on.
DeLuna told the jury that he saw Hernandez inside the Shamrock wrestling with a woman behind the counter. DeLuna said he was afraid and started to run. He had his own police record for sexual assault – though he had never been known to possess or use a weapon – and he feared getting into trouble again.
"I just kept running because I was scared, you know." When he heard the sirens of police cars screeching towards the gas station he panicked and hid under a pick-up truck where, 40 minutes after the killing, he was arrested.
At the trial, DeLuna's defence team told the jury that Carlos Hernandez, not DeLuna, was the murderer. But the prosecutors ridiculed that suggestion. They told the jury that police had looked for a "Carlos Hernandez" after his name had been passed to them by DeLuna's lawyers, without success. They had concluded that Hernandez was a fabrication, a "phantom" who simply did not exist. The chief prosecutor said in summing up that Hernandez was a "figment of DeLuna's imagination".
Four years after DeLuna was executed, Liebman decided to look into the DeLuna case as part of a project he was undertaking into the fallibility of the death penalty. He asked a private investigator to spend one day – just one day – looking for signs of the elusive Carlos Hernandez.
By the end of that single day the investigator had uncovered evidence that had eluded scores of Texan police officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges over the six years between DeLuna's arrest and execution. Carlos Hernandez did indeed exist. [...]
With the help of his students, Liebman began to piece together a profile of Hernandez. He was an alcoholic with a history of violence, who was always in the company of his trusted companion: a lock-blade buck knife.
Over the years he was arrested 39 times, 13 of them for carrying a knife, and spent his entire adult life on parole. Yet he was almost never put in prison for his crimes – a disparity that Liebman believes was because he was used as a police informant. "Its hard to understand what happened without that piece of the puzzle," Liebman says.
Several of the crimes that Hernandez committed involved hold-ups of Corpus Christi gas stations. Just a few days before the Shamrock murder he was found cowering outside a nearby 7-Eleven wielding a knife – a detail never disclosed to DeLuna's defence.
He also had a history of violence towards women. He was twice arrested on suspicion of the 1979 murder of a woman called Dahlia Sauceda, who was stabbed and then had an "X" carved into her back. The first arrest was made four years before DeLuna's trial and the second while DeLuna was on death row, yet the connection between this Hernandez and the "phantom" presented to DeLuna's jury was never made.
In October 1989, just two months before DeLuna was executed, Hernandez was setenced to 10 years' imprisonment for attempting to kill with a knife another woman called Dina Ybanez. Even then, no one thought to alert the courts or Texas state as it prepared to put DeLuna to death. Hernandez himself frequently told people that he was a knife murderer. He made numerous confessions to having killed Wanda Lopez, the crime for which DeLuna was executed, joking with friends and relatives that his "tocayo" had taken the fall. His admissions were so widely broadcast that even Corpus Christi police detectives came to hear about them within weeks of the incident at the Shamrock gas station.
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Human Rights Law Review
Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution