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Columbia Law School team publishes anatomy of a wrongful South Texas execution

Photo: Courtesy photo, License: N/A

Courtesy photo

Until the day Texas executed him in 1989, Carlos DeLuna insisted another Carlos stabbed and killed 24-year-old Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi gas station in February 1983. At trial, prosecutors dismissed the idea, calling the other Carlos “a phantom” that didn't exist.

More than two decades after DeLuna's execution, Columbia University law school professor James Liebman and a team of his students have gathered a trove of evidence they claim shows DeLuna was innocent of the crime, publishing the findings last week in a 400-page e-book and in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review's spring issue. Moreover, they say, it appears DeLuna took the fall for an acquaintance, Carlos Hernandez, who authorities failed to track down and investigate. According to extensive witness testimony Liebman's team gathered, Hernandez, who had his own history of violent crimes against women, bragged repeatedly of killing Lopez.

Hernandez died in prison in 1999, a decade after DeLuna was executed by the state of Texas, while serving time in prison for attacking a woman with a knife.

Liebman told the Current this week that he discovered DeLuna's case in 2003 during a project in which his students examined Texas capital cases where prosecution relied heavily on single eyewitness testimony to score a conviction. Increasingly concerned with DeLuna's case, Liebman handed some preliminary findings over to The Chicago Tribune in 2006, which conducted its own investigation into the case and concluded DeLuna's conviction “was compromised by shaky eyewitness identification, sloppy police work and a failure to thoroughly pursue Hernandez as a possible suspect.”

The Current spoke with Liebman this week about his team's investigation and what he thinks it says about capital cases in Texas and around the country. Below are some highlights from the conversation. You can read the full e-book and access all the team's source materials, including official records and video-taped interviews, at

What made you pick this case?

I had found a study looking at legal error in capital cases. So we decided to go take a look and see if there were cases where there was a real problem and a real probability that somebody had been executed who was innocent. We decided to look in Texas because that's where more executions had occurred than any other state. We also decided to look at single eyewitness cases where somebody had been executed on the basis of single eyewitness testimony because we know that those are unreliable and a lot of the DNA exoneration of live prisoners have been in cases of bad eyewitness identifications.

So one of the very first cases we came across was the case of Carlos DeLuna, and at first it didn't seem like a very strong case. Although he said this other man had committed the crime, nobody had ever actually identified another person with that name who could have been the criminal. We had an investigator in Corpus Christi, and we told him to spend the day and see if he could find this Carlos Hernandez. The second witness he talked to turned out to be the stepmother of the niece of Carlos Hernandez and she had heard from her niece that Hernandez had gone around confessing, admitting that he had committed this crime and let another man take the blame for it who ultimately was executed. That just opened things up to us. The more we looked, the more we found and it all pointed to Hernandez and away from Carlos DeLuna.

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