Report: Texas Executed The Wrong Man Because He Looked Like The Real Murderer

Last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) admitted that he “never struggled . . . at all” with whether someone his state executed might have been innocent. Yet a new book written by Columbia Law Professor James Liebman shows that Carlos DeLuna, executed by Texas in 1989, was innocent. According to Liebman, DeLuna was wrongfully convicted and executed for the murder of Wanda Lopez following a botched investigation. DeLuna and the man believed to have committed the murder, Carlos Hernandez, looked so much alike that they were mistaken for each other in photographs by family members. However, DeLuna, who was clean-shaven and wearing a white shirt, did not fit the description of the eyewitness who said that the murderer was wearing flannel and had a mustache. Police arrested DeLuna anyway and failed to do a formal lineup. Police also failed to formally examine the crime scene, ignoring foot and fingerprints, not taking blood samples, and allowing the scene to be cleaned by gas station employees.

Not only did DeLuna maintain his innocence throughout the investigation and his subsequent incarceration, he told investigators that he knew Hernandez had committed the crime. DeLuna was ignored, and during his trial prosecutors ridiculed his claim:

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”. …

By the end of [a] 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.[…]

Hernandez had a criminal background that included several violent assaults. He eventually died in prison after attacking his girlfriend with a knife.

DeLuna is not the only man to be wrongfully convicted and executed by the state of Texas. There is persuasive evidence that Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted in the death of his three daughters and executed in 2004, was innocent and DNA tests have undermined the evidence used to convict and execute Claude Jones. Texas continues to lead the nation in executions, accounting for over one-third of US executions since 1976, despite the fact that there were 41 DNA exonerations there from 2002-2011.

Moreover, DeLuna’s case highlights the difficulties inherent in the permanence of the death penalty — despite conservative efforts to dismiss these difficulties. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said in 2005 that there was not “a single case—not one—in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit.” It’s now hard to doubt that’s not true.

–Alex Brown