The Columbia University Human Rights Law Review devoted its entire Spring 2012 issue to a single article, which alleges that in 1989 the state of Texas executed an innocent man, Carlos De Luna, for the 1983 murder of Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi gas station. The Atlantic‘s Andrew Cohen described the 400-page piece, titled “Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution,” as a “blend of narrative journalism, legal research and gumshoe detective work.”
The article alleges that the real killer was Carlos Hernandez—a man who shared De Luna’s name, “darkly handsome looks and a history of substance abuse,” according to the Houston Chronicle‘s Allan Turner. Project sponsor and Columbia Law professor James Liebman told the newspaper that report “grew out of a 2003 student project to examine Texas capital cases in which a single eyewitness account was key to conviction.”
People at the crime scene “gave wildly divergent descriptions” of possible suspects, the Houston Chronicle reported. Only one person actually witnessed the struggle, and that witness told the Columbia team that “he was only 70 percent sure of his identification” of the culprit.
After a police investigation that lasted less than an hour, De Luna—who had been found hiding nearby under a truck—was arrested based on these accounts. Strangely, no blood was found on his clothes, nor did any DNA evidence ever link him to the crime scene.
“If De Luna’s problems started with the police investigation, journal authors argue, they gained speed with his defense,” Turner wrote. De Luna was represented by two attorneys, “a general practice lawyer who never had handled a major felony case and a veteran who had a heavy case load,” and their defense was “poorly coordinated.”
In a media statement Tuesday, Liebman said that De Luna’s case is wrought with issues like “faulty eyewitness testimony, shoddy legal representation, and prosecutorial misfeasance.” At the Atlantic, Andrew Cohen faulted police, prosecutors, and the defense for not further investigating another “likely” suspect. De Luna had identified Hernandez as the killer immediately before his trial, and Liebman’s team concluded that Hernandez’s guilt was “common knowledge,” the Atlantic reported.
In 2005, according to Cohen, Liebman approached Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley about independently investigating the De Luna’s case. The resulting three-part series was published in 2006. The story “identified five people who [said] Hernandez told them that he stabbed Lopez and that De Luna, whom he called his ‘stupid tocayo,’ or namesake, went to Death Row in his place.”
The lead prosecutor at De Luna’s trial, Steve Schiwetz, told the Houston Chronicle this week that while he had not read the Columbia Law report, he disagreed with their findings.“These guys are crusaders…What can I say?” said Schiwetz, who now works in private practice in Corpus Christi.
When Schiwetz was contacted by Tribune reporters six years ago, he returned to the the Nueces County district attorney’s office went back over the case file. While he ceded then that the case “relied heavily on eyewitness testimony,” certain details still persuade him that the jury convicted the right man, the Tribune journalists reported in the third piece in their 2006 series.
In the epilogue of “Los Tocayos Carlos,” Liebman wrote:
We have attempted to present the case so that our readers can consider the evidence for themselves, reach their own conclusions about what happened, and let their own consciences dictate how much tolerance for doubt is allowable when human life is on the line.