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Carlos DeLuna Case: the Fight to Prove an Innocent Man Was Executed

May 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A new report published by Columbia Law School professor James Liebman and his students aims to clear the name of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed for a murder that he swore he didn't commit. Ray Suarez speaks with Liebman about the quest to prove DeLuna was innocent and put to death for another man's crime.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a murder in Texas 29 years ago, an execution six years later, and now a report that aims to clear the name of the man who paid for the crime with his life.

Ray Suarez has the story.

And a warning: Some of the images are graphic.

RAY SUAREZ: A man entered a gas station on a February night in 1983 in a dangerous neighborhood of Corpus Christi, Texas.

The clerk, Wanda Lopez, a poor single mother, was on edge when she called police.

911 OPERATOR: Has he threatened you in any way?

WANDA LOPEZ, victim: Not yet.

911 OPERATOR: Does he have the knife pulled out?

WANDA LOPEZ: Not yet.

911 OPERATOR: Is it in his pocket?

Get a unit on a 17 to the Shamrock. Got an armed robbery going down right now.

RAY SUAREZ: The man leaped over the counter, stabbed Lopez in the left breast, and wrestled her to the ground, splattering blood across the walls. An eyewitness saw the man flee. Forty minutes later, police had their suspect, Carlos DeLuna. The killer was another man, DeLuna insisted, another Carlos, Carlos Hernandez.

CARLOS DELUNA, defendant: Maybe, one day, the truth will come out, and I’m hoping it will. If I end up getting executed for this purpose, I don’t think it’s right, you know?

RAY SUAREZ: DeLuna maintained his innocence at every opportunity, up until Texas executed him six years later by lethal injection.

Prosecutors claimed Hernandez didn’t exist. But while DeLuna waited on death row, Hernandez was telling people about the gas station murder. He also used the same kind of knife that killed Lopez to attack other women, including Dina Ybanez.

DINA YBANEZ, neighbor of Carlos Hernandez: Carlos was so — bragging about the other one that he did at the gas station. Because somebody else was arrested, he will call him his tocayo and he will laugh about it because he got away with it and somebody was paying for something that he didn’t do.

RAY SUAREZ: A tocayo is a person who shares your first name.

Carlos Hernandez died in prison in 1999. Now a 430-page report published by Columbia Law School professor James Liebman and his students in a human rights law review details the murder. They found mistakes in the police investigation, problems with the eyewitness identification, missing information in the trial where DeLuna was found guilty and in his appeals process.

Meanwhile, Hernandez stayed free and went on to commit crime after crime. The study concludes that, for the first time, evidence shows that a state has executed an apparently innocent person.

Professor James Liebman and his students at Columbia Law School have spent four-and-a-half years reassembling this story. He joins us from New York.

When he was in jail, Carlos DeLuna told people he was afraid to finger Carlos Hernandez, for fear of retaliation. But if Carlos Hernandez was a criminal already well-known to local law enforcement, convicted and charged with many violent crimes, why wasn’t he a suspect already?

JAMES LIEBMAN, Columbia Law School: Well, that’s hard to tell.

We know, actually, that he was a suspect in this murder. The police reports that we uncovered 20 years later showed that the police had actually focused on him within two months of the crime. We found his rap sheet, Carlos Hernandez’s rap sheet, in the district attorney’s file dated in May.

The trial was later in July, which was the first time that Carlos DeLuna had said to the prosecutors that it was Carlos Hernandez, but they already knew about him. And the police had actually picked up the fact that Carlos Hernandez was confessing to the crime in the neighborhoods of Corpus Christi. A lot of people heard it, but the police heard it as well.

RAY SUAREZ: From the very beginning, it seems like things didn’t add up. Was there ever any evidence connecting Carlos DeLuna to the gas station and the killing of Wanda Lopez?

JAMES LIEBMAN: There wasn’t a shred of forensic in evidence this case. Even though the crime scene was a very small, confined area that was just doused in blood, because the victim was bleeding to death from her knife wound, there wasn’t a drop of blood, not even a microscopic drop of blood on Carlos DeLuna or his clothing.

We know because we found the photograph 20 years later that the person who committed the crime left a footprint in blood, very deep blood, almost like stepping in mud. But Carlos DeLuna’s shoes didn’t have a drop of blood on them.

RAY SUAREZ: Carlos DeLuna, the man who went to the death chamber for the murder, did have a police record. Did it include crimes of this type? Did it include violent crime at all?

JAMES LIEBMAN: It didn’t include any crime ever with a knife.

Indeed, he was never — or any other weapon of any sort. He was arrested many times and — but he never had a knife on him or any other weapon. The most serious crime of which he was convicted, for which he had a two-year sentence and then parole, was an attempted rape in Dallas.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you spent years investigating this case, along with your team. What attracted you initially to the story of the two tocayos, the two Carloses?

JAMES LIEBMAN: Well, I had done a study that showed there was a lot of error in capital cases.

And people said, well, it just shows the courts are up to the task of finding all that error. So, we decided to look for cases where perhaps the courts weren’t up to it. We looked for single eyewitness identifications, like this one, where somebody went to the — got executed based on a single eyewitness identification.

And one of the first cases we came to was this one, where Carlos DeLuna said he had seen another man commit the crime, but nobody had ever produced this other man, Carlos Hernandez. So we sent an investigator to Corpus Christi and said, spend a day and see if you can find Carlos Hernandez.

And the second witness he talked to said, I know who Carlos Hernandez is. he’s the uncle of my stepdaughter. And she has told me that he’s confessed to this crime, killing the clerk at the Shamrock gas station some years ago.

So that’s how the investigation then unfolded as we traced down the history of Carlos Hernandez.

RAY SUAREZ: But it’s been almost 23 years since the execution. Did some of the facts that you just laid out for us exist before Carlos DeLuna went to the death chamber?

JAMES LIEBMAN: That’s what’s most frightening about this case.

This is one of the most ordinary-seeming cases. And at the time, it seemed ordinary, open and shut, and nobody paid it a second thought, including the lawyers who represented Carlos DeLuna on appeal, who told courts and told the governor at the time of clemency that Carlos DeLuna was certainly guilty and made legal arguments on his behalf, but not the argument that he was innocent.

So it took us to do this deep investigation 20-some years later to uncover what lay beneath the surface in this case, and could very well lie beneath the surface in many other cases that look just like this, as just a kind of run-of-the-mill case, where guilt has been established, and that’s the end of it.

RAY SUAREZ: So you have called this run-of-the-mill, ordinary. What’s the warning here for police departments, for prosecutors, for judges?

JAMES LIEBMAN: Well, the warning here is, even if you have settled on a suspect, you should keep looking, especially if you hear that other people are taking the blame for it.

And there’s a broader message, too, that if we’re going to use a penalty like the death penalty, that we have to take into consideration that the risk of executing an innocent person is real. And that’s what this case has shown.

RAY SUAREZ: You know, for a long time, death penalty opponents have speculated about the existence of a clear-cut case of wrongful execution, and have said that, if they could find one, that would transform the national conversation about capital punishment.

And, conversely, people who support the death penalty have noted with some satisfaction that cases like that haven’t come to light. How come this isn’t a bigger deal?

JAMES LIEBMAN: Well, we think it is a very, very big deal.

And we put it out for the public to read. It’s on a website, TheWrongCarlos.net. Every single piece of paper and videotape and everything else is there for the public to see.

And we see a lot of evidence that this actually is seeping into the public consciousness at a time of a great debate about the death penalty. Five states have abolished in the last five years. California is going to have a big referendum.

So we think that this is what scholarship is about and why, at a law school, it’s our responsibility to put it out there for the public and let the public see. And we believe that, over time, this will become very much a part of the discussion, and it will be hard, very hard not to take it into consideration.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor James Liebman from Columbia Law School, thanks for joining us.

JAMES LIEBMAN: Thank you very much.