The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution – James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project

carlosOn the evening of February 4, 1983, twenty-four-year-old Wanda Lopez arrived at the Sigmor Shamrock gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, to begin her shift as a gas station attendant. She never finished that shift. After noticing a suspicious male brandishing a knife, Lopez called police not once but twice before she was savagely attacked and fatally wounded. In less than one hour, police arrested twenty-year-old Carlos Deluna and charged him with the murder. Deluna entered a plea of not guilty and chose to stand trial where he was convicted and later sentenced to death. On December 7, 1989, he was executed at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Prosecutors had secured a conviction and put forth the notion that justice had been served in the State of Texas. However, Deluna maintained his innocence from the start and stated more than once that he knew who did kill Lopez. The name “Carlos Hernandez” became an area of interest, yet officials claimed that no such person existed, nor had he been incarcerated in Texas. But were they telling the truth? And was justice served in Deluna’s execution? James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project examined the Lopez murder and the fate of Carlos Deluna to uncover what really happened and find the truth behind a dark story that will send chills down the spine of readers.

Before reading this book, I was not familiar with Carlos Deluna or the murder of Wanda Lopez. But that quickly changed as I began to read this unsettling and thought-provoking account of the justice system failing to deliver due process. The book focuses on the Lopez murder early on as expected. From the start, the crime itself makes no sense and we learn early that a couple of the witnesses whom the police questioned remained haunted by that night. And their admissions regarding what they saw or thought they saw that night, set the stage for the saga to come, and presents the basis for doubt of Deluna’s guilt. After presenting the subsequent statements of witnesses to the crime, the authors take us back to that night in February 1983 when Wanda Lopez lived her last moments. Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of violence and crime scenes may find this part of the book difficult. However, the scene and actions of forensic investigators will have enormous consequences later in the story, when the authors review the collection of vital evidence.

Deluna was assigned legal counsel and the job of defending him fell on Hector De Peña and James Lawrence. De Peña had no experience in defending a capital murder defendant, but Lawrence was an experienced trial lawyer. To their credit, De Peña and Lawrence do their best to mount a defense but come across naive to the determination of prosecutors to see their client convicted and sentenced to death. Despite the State’s imposing presence, De Peña and Lawrence also made mistakes in defending their client. Deluna insisted all along that he was innocent and was adamant that Carlos Hernandez was the man responsible for Lopez’s death, yet it seemed as if no one took him seriously. But just who was Carlos Hernandez and was he as dangerous as Deluna stated?

I have read accounts of countless murder suspects, but few come across as deadly and cold-blooded as Carlos Hernandez. Frankly, the man was pure evil and his propensity for violence towards women is chilling and on full display in the book. He is undoubtedly the darkest figure in the story but incredibly, he was well-known to law enforcement and had committed offenses before and after Lopez’s murder. And as readers will learn, prosecutors were aware of his existence but made no attempt to present him in Deluna’s trial. Deluna’s counsel failed to follow leads that might have taken them to Hernandez. As someone who works in the legal field, I found myself staring in disbelief at the legal practice conducted by the prosecution and defense. And I kept asking myself why a man like Carlos Hernandez was allowed back on the streets of Texas when authorities knew how dangerous he was? And why did Deluna’s lawyers fail to call witnesses who could have provided the jurors with vital information about Deluna’s personal issues and Hernandez’s existence?

I warn readers that Hernandez is a dark figure, but the mini biography provided by the authors does provide explanations as to why he became a monster. To say that his family was dysfunctional would be an understatement. As for Deluna, the authors also provide a biographical sketch of him, and his back story explains his own path in life. Surprisingly, the two men both named Carlos were not strangers to each other and it is this part of the story that seemed to be lost on all counsel. As I read, I kept scratching my head at the missed opportunities to locate Carlos Hernandez and put an end to the mystery. And considering the multitude of crimes that Hernandez committed and his own admissions, it does make one wonder how he evaded punishment so many times. There was more to his story than the State wanted defense counsel to discover. The authors provide another crucial piece of evidence in their assessment that directly addresses the eyewitness testimony: side-by-side photos of both men. When I saw the photo of both men side-by-side, I could not tell them apart and would have picked “the wrong Carlos” myself. Without the aid of DNA technology, eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence were the tools of the trade, and the police made a mess of both.

Earlier I mentioned that the crime scene and actions of investigators had an enormous impact on the trial. The way it impacted the trial is explained by the authors who pay close attention to the handling of evidence and the failure to preserve clues that could have proven conclusively the guilt or innocence of the correct person. If you have watched any modern-day crime show such as “The First 48”, then you know the collection of evidence is the primary concern of investigators. Readers will find themselves aghast as the actions of crime scene investigators. I could not believe what I was reading. If new detectives need a case study on what not to do, it can be found here. Though they did not know it at the time, the actions of investigators helped seal the fate of Carlos Deluna.

It becomes clear in the book that Deluna is headed for conviction. The deck is stacked against him. Following the guilty conviction, the next phase of determining whether he should die was a foregone conclusion. However, he and his family never gave up and exhausted the appeals process to secure his freedom. Yet again, Deluna had legal counsel who neither prepared the case appropriately nor sought to find the mysterious Carlos Hernandez who was hiding in plain sight. The book is both spellbinding and overwhelming. And to think that his happened in America where we are entitled to due process is upsetting. If Carlos Deluna was not a poor man of Mexican heritage but a rich man of another background, he might be alive today. And Carlos Hernandez would have found himself on death row.

Admittedly, Carlos Deluna was no angel and had been in trouble with the law himself before Lopez’s murder. However, his cognitive and emotional issues were neglected throughout his life and resulted in him finding companionship with people who only knew violence and dysfunction. Today Deluna would have at his disposal programs and counseling to help with his issues but in 1983 in a poor part of Texas, help was almost non-existent and slow cognitive development was stigmatized. I never met Carlos Deluna, but I now know his story. Despite everything he went through, he left his family with these words that show a man resigned to his fate and adamant about his innocence:

“I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the faith and don’t give up. —Last words of Carlos DeLuna, December 7, 1989, as recorded by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.” – Carlos Deluna

This is the story of Carlos Deluna, Carlos Hernandez, and a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas that shows how society and the criminal justice system failed those they were designed to protect.


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