On this date in 1989, with the last words “I want to say I hold no grudges,” Carlos DeLuna died by lethal injection in Texas
At the time, not many people took seriously DeLuna’s claim that a different Hispanic man named Carlos — one Carlos Hernandez — was the man who actually slashed Wanda Lopez to death in a Corpus Christi gas station on February 4, 1983.
“I didn’t do it. But I know who did.” That’s what he’d told a police officer soon after his arrest.
A generation later, it’s increasingly clear that Carlos DeLuna really didn’t do it … and that he knew who did it, knew he was going to the gurney for the crime of a man whom the state claimed was just a “phantom” invented by the defendant. Just a few months before DeLuna went to his death, that “phantom”, still on the streets, had knifed a four-inch gash in another woman’s abdomen. Carlos Hernandez had even bragged to others that his “stupid tocayo” — namesake — “took the blame for” a murder he’d committed. (Hernandez died in 1999.)
DeLuna was arrested suspiciously hiding under a truck near the scene of a grisly knife slaying at a gas station. A Hispanic man had been reported as the suspect, and the eyewitness was able to identify DeLuna as that man, just moments after his arrest. Case closed.
Except everyone was wrong.
He was hiding because he’d been violating his parole by drinking at a strip club across the street. He chanced to look just like another Hispanic man from the area, a fellow who just happened to be a violent thug. And he didn’t have a spot of blood on him even though the murder scene looked like the set of a slasher film.
“It was an obscure case, the kind that could involve anybody,” Columbia Law Prof. James Liebman said. “Maybe those are the cases where miscarriages of justice happen, the routine everyday cases where nobody thinks enough about the victim, let alone the defendant.”
The facts of the case have been extensively documented elsewhere, including a 2006 Chicago Tribune series* and an entire 2012 issue of the Columbia University Human Rights Law Review, culmination of a years-long project organized by Liebman.
The latter investigation, complete with original source documents, video, and photographs, is preserved for public use at the magnificent Los Tocayos Carlos site. Its intensively-sourced book-length treatment comes highly recommended, but you might need to clear your schedule.
Executed Today is pleased to welcome one of the coauthors of Los Tocayos Carlos, Andrew Markquart — a 2012 graduate of Columbia Law who collaborated with Prof. Liebman on the DeLuna investigation and now practices in New York.
ET: How did you come to focus on this case, and what went into the investigation?
AM: I got involved after my first year at law school. I started out as a research assistant for Prof. Liebman, and he had been working on this project for years in one form or another when I got involved. I had already had quite a bit of interest in death penalty issues, so I jumped on it.
The initial investigation that Prof. Liebman did was back in 2004. He had done a previous study called “A Broken System” in which they found a shockingly high rate of reversals in capital cases. And basically the question that came out of that for him was, what does that mean?
Does that mean that the courts are doing their jobs and there are a lot of reversals because they’re being very diligent?
Or, is that high number indicative of some big systemic problems?
He started out looking at cases in Texas, for obvious reasons, and particularly focused on cases involving single eyewitnesses. This one came out fairly early on, but there wasn’t much about it initially to suggest this was a strong case. But Prof. Liebman was having someone going down to Corpus Christi anyway and had him check it out, and within one day this investigator was able to track down a lead and figure out exactly who this Carlos Hernandez person was who DeLuna claimed was the actual killer. From there the floodgates opened.
This case reads like something out of Dumas … your doppelganger, who looks just like you and also shares your name, commits a crime and you take the rap. Speaking as a layperson, it’s astonishing that Carlos DeLuna explicitly made the very argument you’re making, that this guy Carlos Hernandez was the real killer. But it wasn’t so much that DeLuna’s allegation was considered and rejected as that it was never taken seriously at all, even by his own defense. Why was that?
It’s a good question and it’s one of the major points we tried to make.
At first DeLuna was a little hesitant, with good reason: Hernandez was well-known in Corpus Christi; he was a terror in the town and had been known to use violence against people who threatened to expose him. Eventually the threat of execution overcame that.
His defense team did very little to research what could or would have been his saving argument, and on the flip side the prosecution said Carlos Hernandez didn’t even exist, which is just a mind-blowing claim. This guy had a rap sheet a mile long. He had been a major suspect in 1979 in another murder case involving one of the prosecutors in the DeLuna case.
The defense lawyer in that case did what DeLuna’s lawyer should have done: he called Carlos Hernandez to the stand and basically prosecuted Carlos Hernandez as his defense. He got his client off, and we’re pretty confident from our research that Hernandez was actually guilty of that murder, too.
Hernandez was definitely no “phantom”: he was known to law enforcement, known in the neighborhood. Can you explain why the prosecuting attorneys would make such a claim?
It’s hard to explain. I suspect they probably thought they had the right guy, they probably thought he was making up a bogus story … and they cut a few corners. But that’s speculation.
Your report writes, “Central to DeLuna’s obscurity was the failure of lawyers on the defense as well as the prosecution side to have the curiosity and gumption to look just an inch or two below the surface.” It seems like there just wasn’t much of any work done by any actor to pursue evidence that could defend DeLuna.
Carlos DeLuna’s defense lawyer had trouble getting any kind of funding to do investigation. And this was his first criminal case of any kind, let alone capital case.
The police only investigated for a couple of hours before turning it over to the store manager to clean up to open the next morning. It was a simple case of tunnel vision: they had arrested Carlos DeLuna, they got a quick eyewitness ID, and they thought they were done.
There’s all kinds of evidence at the scene. In the police photos, which are available at our website, there’s a footprint in blood that has to be the culprit’s shoeprint, and they never even saw it. It was that sloppy. You can also see the detective, Olivia Escobedo, literally standing on evidence — a nice metaphor for the investigation.
Yes, he did. For reasons I can’t make sense of, he either was just severely misremembering, or just made up, some story about hanging out with these girls earlier in the evening that was completely untrue. But the thing about it is that the story as he gave it didn’t even help his case. It didn’t give him an alibi. But it hurt his case, because then they could bring in these girls to testify and destroy his credibility.
It’s hard to figure out what was in his head to say that. DeLuna wasn’t the most intelligent person; his IQ tested just barely above the threshold for cognitive impairment.
The original trial was in 1983, and Carlos was executed in 1989. How representative are the circumstances of this case still, relative to new death penalty trials today or to death row prisoners whose appeals are being handled now?
-Wanda Lopez’s mother Mary Vargas, quoted in Dec. 7, 1989 Dallas Morning News
“After carefully reviewing the information recently uncovered and printed by Steve Mills and Maurice Possley in the Chicago Tribune, I am convinced that Carlos DeLuna did not kill my sister and that Carlos Hernandez was the real murderer.”
-Wanda Lopez’s brother Richard Vargas, June 2006
You see these kind of cases and issues come up even today. That’s one point we try to make: yes, this case was from 29 years ago, but a lot of things remain the same.
There was no physical evidence, despite all the blood at the scene: it was just based on eyewitnesses.** And you kind of have a casebook bad eyewitness identification. They didn’t use a lineup; it was nighttime; it was a cross-racial identification, which we know are highly error-prone; he [DeLuna] was in the squad car, at the scene, handcuffed, under a highly stressful environment. You have these kinds of show-up identifications happen all the time, all over the country. They’re rife with error.
I know actually someone in the Texas legislature has introduced a bill to reform the eyewitness identification process.
And there’s a lot of good public defenders out there who really work hard and do good work, but also a lot of underexperienced and overburdened public defenders who are just being crushed. There’s always systemic pressure for cops and prosecutors to cut corners. I certainly don’t think the lessons of Carlos DeLuna’s case have been learned.
In your view, what are the most important of those lessons?
The fallibility of our criminal justice system. Carlos DeLuna wasn’t convicted and executed in some third world country — he was given a trial and a lawyer and appeals and all the other protections and yet he still slipped through the cracks.
And the other lesson is the widespread nature of the factors involved, like the unreliable eyewitness ID. People go to prison on that basis every day. It seems highly likely there are more Carlos DeLunas.
The way that we found this story and developed it was enormously labor-intensive. The number of man-hours that went into this, between authors, investigators, research assistants, and the whole staff of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review … you just can’t do this for every case where there’s some kind of colorable suggestion of the possibility of wrongful execution.
I’d be very surprised if there aren’t more like him.
* The Tribune series on DeLuna began on June 25, 2006 … the day before Supreme Court crank Antonin Scalia taunted in Kansas v. Marsh that there was “not one” case of a “clear” wrongful execution. “The innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby,” Scalia wrote.
** Eyewitness (mis)identification is also at the heart of the Ruben Cantu case, another suspected wrongful execution in Texas.