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Blood on Texas' Hands

A new Columbia Law Review article demonstrates how the state may have executed an innocent man

By Jordan Smith, Fri., May 18, 2012

Wanda Lopez and her daughter
Wanda Lopez and her daughter
Photo courtesy of thewrongcarlos.net

It's been 23 years since Carlos De Luna was executed by lethal injection for the 1983 attempted robbery and murder of Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi gas station; this week, a book-length law review article was released that meticulously deconstructs the case – and makes it almost undeniable that Texas executed an innocent man.

In the years since De Luna's execution, serious questions have been raised about whether De Luna was actually responsible for the crime. The Columbia University School of Law's Human Rights Law Review dedicates its entire latest issue to unfolding the case in "Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrong­ful Execution." The article, by Professor James Liebman and a group of law students, presents the strongest evidence yet that the state of Texas has convicted and killed an innocent man, and failed completely to catch the real killer, Carlos Hernandez, despite compelling evidence that pointed directly to his guilt.

Lopez was working the evening shift at a gas station in a rough part of Corpus when a Hispanic man carrying a knife came into the store. He stabbed Lopez in her left breast; she bled out at the scene. After a frantic 40-minute search, police found De Luna, drunk and hiding under a pickup truck, and arrested him. They immediately took him to the scene of the crime, where a lone eyewitness, Kevan Baker, said De Luna looked like the man he'd seen – "it was really tough ... saying yes or no," Baker told Liebman's team. "It seemed like the right guy."

De Luna, however, maintained his innocence to his death. It wasn't he who killed Lopez but another Carlos, Carlos Hernandez, De Luna's tocayo – or namesake – who was the murderer, he repeatedly said.

Although De Luna had a history of run-ins with the law, none were for violent offenses, and no evidence at the bloody scene linked him to the crime. Hernandez, on the other hand, had a very violent past and a penchant for using a lock-blade folding knife to assault and murder young Hispanic women. More­over, Hernandez bragged to numerous people that he was responsible for Lopez's murder but that De Luna took the fall. Within days of the murder, police began hearing from confidential informants that Hernandez was the real killer. Nonetheless, no one ever acted on the information, and Hernandez was left free while De Luna was eventually killed.

At its core, Liebman says, the case exemplifies a number of issues problematic in criminal justice. "There is bad eyewitness identification, an incomplete and imperfect investigation – they spent two hours at the scene that night [and never returned during the day], and they missed all kinds of things or didn't bring them up at the trial." There was also ineffective counsel, possible prosecutorial misconduct – including the suppression of police audio of the manhunt for the killer that suggests the bulk of the 40-minute chase was spent pursuing a man fitting Hernandez's description, and not De Luna's – capped off with "not very thorough" post-conviction appeals, Liebman says. "It's got everything in it."

But Liebman doesn't want you to take his word for it. In addition to the published article, he has put together an exhaustive website linking to all the primary documents available in the case. Liebman encourages folks to explore the site (www.thewrongcarlos.net) and decide for themselves whether Texas has blood on its hands.


See also: "Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?," Newsdesk blog, May 15.

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