Published: 24 July 2014 11:56 AMThe Dallas Morning NewsWhile the national debate over the death penalty has been rekindled by Wednesday’s botched execution of a murderer in Arizona, the execution of Carlos DeLuna should matter much more. It happened almost 25 years ago. It should haunt us still today.
DeLuna’s death at the hands of the state of Texas was almost certainly a crime in itself. The evidence is compelling that he was an innocent man and that it was another Carlos — Carlos Hernandez — who in February 1983 brutally murdered a single mother named Wanda Lopez as she worked in a Corpus Christi convenience store.
A newly published book by Columbia Law School professor James S. Liebman and The Columbia DeLuna Project lays out the story not only of Lopez’s sadistic murder but of the injustice that likely led the state to strap an innocent man to a gurney and poison him to death.
The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, shows how law enforcement officers botched the investigation of Lopez’s death from the first moments they walked into the crime scene.
Evidence that included shoe prints, a cigarette butt, a wad of chewing gum and clumps of hair were ignored or overlooked. Detectives trampled on the blood-covered crime scene before it was washed down and erased by 6 a.m. the morning after the murder. The primary detective on the case spent less than two hours at the scene and never saw it in the light of day, the book states.
DeLuna was no saint. The eighth-grade dropout was a repeat felon. But when police found him hiding under a truck as they scoured a neighborhood for a suspect — not a drop of blood on him — it was the fatal beginning of wrong assumptions and bad law enforcement.
The key evidence against DeLuna was an eyewitness who identified him as the man he saw struggling with Lopez behind the counter of the convenience store window. That witness, Kevin Baker, was pumping gas when he saw the fight. He walked to the convenience store door as the killer walked out. They stood 3 feet apart. “Don’t mess with me, I got a gun,” the murderer said.
A former Navy medic, Baker ran into the store and aided Lopez as she begged him for help before dying.
Baker’s testimony that it was DeLuna he saw that night was crucial in the conviction. And yet, considering all of the evidence now, it appears certain Baker was wrong. It was Hernandez, a known gang leader with a penchant for knives and a sadistic bent, who killed Lopez, the book concludes. Hernandez repeatedly boasted that he had killed Lopez and let his “stupida tocayo,” or namesake, take the fall.
That’s what makes this book so disturbing. A man’s life turned on a single piece of evidence. Police and prosecutors, meanwhile, actively ignored evidence to the contrary. DeLuna was even accused of fabricating the existence of Hernandez, someone who was well known to authorities.
The punishment of death is irreversible. It is the most dire sentence a state can mete out. Carlos DeLuna was executed 25 years ago. But The Wrong Carlos reminds us that his death must still have meaning, especially in his home state.