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Columbia law article says Texas executed the wrong Carlos

Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for a crime a Columbia University Law School team believes was committed by another man named Carlos.
Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for a crime a Columbia University Law School team believes was committed by another man named Carlos.Corpus Christi Police Dept. / AFP - Getty Images file

This spring, the editorial board at the Columbia Human Rights Law Review dedicated its final issue of the year to one article about two men named Carlos. Carlos DeLuna, the authors believe, was executed in Texas for a crime committed by Carlos Hernandez, who looked so much like him that one of their sisters confused the two in a photograph.

"Los Tocayos Carlos," which runs 451 pages and is available for free online, details the stabbing death of Wanda Lopez, a 24-year-old assistant manager at a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

The article, which took six years, one professor and 12 students to produce, reads like a true-crime novel. It begins: “Wanda Lopez died at work at a Sigmor Shamrock gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas on February 4, 1983. She was twenty-four.Wanda’s only brother, Richard Vargas, heard her say her last words, but they gave him no solace or peace. They just made him angry.

There were two Carloses in the vicinity that night. An eye witness to the crime identified Carlos DeLuna as the man who had wrestled with Wanda Lopez, even though his clothes did not match the witness' original description.  

The law school team interviewed Carlos Hernandez's relatives, who revealed that on the day of the murder, before Carlos DeLuna was arrested, he told them that he had killed a woman named Wanda and that he felt badly about it. He said he didn't think he'd get caught.

Hernandez later told someone else that he had committed the murder and that "Carlos DeLuna took the fall."

Police told the Columbia investigators that Carlos DeLuna didn't have it in him to commit such a crime. DeLuna, a junior high drop out, had a low IQ and had been arrested for low-level crimes but was better known for huffing paint. Carlos Hernandez, by contrast, had raped children in the neighborhood and had been arrested for assaulting his wife with an ax handle, according to the Columbia University report.

Questioning how Carlos Hernandez, with his reputation, could have avoided scrutiny, the law school students and their professor discovered that Hernandez had been a police informant.

But not all police officers liked Carlos Hernandez -- their informants reported to them that Hernandez might have been to blame for other unsolved murders of Latina women.

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Even before the crime was committed, the case was sloppily handled, the law school team strongly suggests. A novice dispatcher took too long to send out a patrol car to the gas station where Wanda Lopez was knifed. 

Years down the road, after DeLuna had been sentenced to death, the state assigned him an attorney who had never tried a major case in court, but who landed the job, the law school team suggests, because his father was politically connected.

In 1989, Carlos DeLuna was executed by lethal injection. His tocayo, or namesake, Carlos Hernandez, died in jail in 1999.

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In the introduction, the authors write: “Los Tocayos Carolos poignantly reveals how easily our legal system can fail to produce just outcomes even without the deliberate interference of individuals acting in bad faith and how the consequences of such failures can be irrevocable and at times, fatal.”

Columbia Law Professor James S. Liebman told the Guardian that what struck him most as he conducted his research was that the story was mundane.

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"This wasn't the trial of OJ Simpson,” Liebman said. “It was an obscure case, the kind that could involve anybody. Maybe those are the cases where miscarriages of justice happen, the routine everyday cases where nobody thinks enough about the victim, let alone the defendant."

The Columbia Human Rights Review piece recalls work by Northwestern University Professor David Protess and his students to exonerate innocent death row inmates. In 2000, Gov. George Ryan declared a moratorium on Illinois’ death penalty.

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