Columbia Professor and Students Reveal Texas Justice Executed the Wrong Man in 1989


Ann Coulter, George W. Bush, and Justice Anton Scalia have one thing in common; all of them have at some point expressed total confidence in the American justice system and, in particular, its ability to never, ever execute people who were not guilty. (To be fair, in Coulter's case she just thinks that the Americans executed since 1950 were all guilty.)

Whoops, says Columbia University Professor James S. Liebman and 12 of his law students after six years of research. The story of the conviction and 1989 execution of Carlos DeLuna for what turned out to be a murder committed by Carlos Hernandez is a textbook example of everything going wrong in a murder case. The cost of such errors are two murders instead of just one (to say nothing of a lack of restitution for the victim, if that's your bag.)

Says the The Guardian, the Spring 2012 Human Rights Law Review has 400-plus pages on this disaster:

Starting in 2004, they meticulously chased down every possible lead in the case, interviewing more than 100 witnesses, perusing about 900 pieces of source material and poring over crime scene photographs and legal documents that, when stacked, stand over 10ft high.

What they discovered stunned even Liebman, who, as an expert in America's use of capital punishment, was well versed in its flaws. "It was a house of cards. We found that everything that could go wrong did go wrong," he says.


From the moment of his arrest until the day of his death by lethal injection six years later, DeLuna consistently protested he was innocent. He went further – he said that though he hadn't committed the murder, he knew who had. He even named the culprit: a notoriously violent criminal called Carlos Hernandez.

Rest here. The HRLR's full report is over here.

And over at The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen had this to say:

No one can ever say again with a straight face that America doesn't execute innocent men. No one. Barry Scheck told me Friday: "If Carlos DeLuna were still alive, [the Article] would form the basis of a habeas petition that would have exonerated him."

Anyone who cares about the integrity of our justice system, and the constitutional values it is supposed to reflect, should expect Justice Scalia to read the Review article this summer—and certainly before he writes another word for the Court about the death penalty. We'll see. I also especially recommend Los Tocayos Carlos to anyone and everyone—judge, prosecutor, police official, witness, medical expert, etc—who had anything at all to do with making the DeLuna case the symbol it will now become.

DeLuna was reportedly slow as a child and tested as mildly mentally retarded as a juvenile. Later, he was in and out of trouble with the law until he was found (and was perhaps beaten) by the police on the night of the Lopez murder. There is great doubt even today that he fully understood the magnitude of the trouble he was in, even as he was nearing the end in 1989, which is why he made such a perfect patsy for Carlos Hernandez.

The ultimate villain of this awful story, Hernandez died in prison, in 1999, boasting to the end that he had killed Wanda Lopez and allowed another man to take the fall for it. The cops knew this. The prosecutors knew or should have known it. Witnesses knew it. And yet no one did anything to stop the state executioners from carrying out their job. Why no one listened to Hernandez for all those years, and why no one hears the cries of others today, is a question Justice Scalia and many others have to answer for themselves.

As Cohen noted, this is definitely not the first time American justice has succeeded at killing an innocent man. There's no need to even wade back into last year's Troy Davis controversy. Texas's long history of executions also includes Cameron Todd Willingham, the father who almost certainly did not set the fire which killed his three kids in 1991 and for which he was executed in 2004. 

Death, like the more banal pursuits, is not given out fairly or justly (if there such a thing) by governments, their officials, or even the jury pool drafted for the noble, alarming task of deciding the fate of a stranger. Fans of the death penalty should at least have the decency to admit that they're okay with errors like the one that killed Carlos DeLuna. 

Reason on capital punishment