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New Proof of an Old Fear: Execution of the Innocent

Cassandra Stubbs,
Director Capital Punishment Project,
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May 15, 2012

The State of Texas, long the nation’s leader in executions, has now earned the dubious title of the state most likely to execute the innocent. In 2004, Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham, despite compelling evidence that he was actually innocent of the arson which caused the death of his three small children. Now, newly assembled evidence suggests that Carlos DeLuna, executed by Texas in 1989, was also innocent. A team of researchers from Columbia Law School today released a new report about DeLuna’s case, Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction. The full report, along with video clips and interviews about the case, are available at the Columbia Human Rights Law Review’s website.

In 1983, Wanda Lopez was a 24-year-old single mother working at a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, when she was tragically stabbed to death. The central proof against DeLuna was the testimony of a single eyewitness (mistaken eyewitness identifications are the single largest cause of wrongful convictions). In DeLuna’s case, the eyewitness described the murderer as a Hispanic man with a full mustache. Although the eyewitness identified DeLuna — who had no mustache — after DeLuna was arrested, the witness later admitted that he was uncertain about the identification.

Worse than the mistaken identification is the failure of the police to investigate evidence pointing to a different killer, and the failure of the police and prosecutors to turn over or even acknowledge the evidence existed. From the time of his arrest until the time of his execution, DeLuna insisted on his innocence, saying that the crime was committed by an acquaintance named Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez had a long history of violent knife assaults against women and had bragged that he killed Wanda Lopez and that his “tocayo” (meaning a person with the same name) took the fall. The two men looked so much alike that even friends and family couldn’t easily tell their photos apart.

Although the police had leads that pointed to Hernandez — who later died in prison — as the killer, they failed to give that information to the defense. The prosecution argued in court that Hernandez was just a figment of DeLuna’s imagination. The new report documents these failures and others, and presents compelling evidence of Hernandez’s guilt. It shows the numerous systemic breakdowns that allowed Texas to convict, and then execute, an innocent man.

The problem of executing the innocent is not confined to Texas, as anyone who followed the Troy Davis case knows only too well. As Justice Antonin Scalia has bluntly told us, we cannot rely on our Constitution to protect the innocent from execution. The only guarantee that this tragedy will not be repeated is to end the death penalty.

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