Crime, Death Penalty, Deaths, Law Schools, Murder, Texas, Violence

Did These Columbia Law Students and Their Professor Prove That Texas Executed An Innocent Man?

According to new research from Columbia Law School, this man was executed for a murder he did not commit.

Earlier this week, a group of students at Columbia Law School, along with law professor James Liebman, released a 400-page report detailing the story of a Texas man who was, according to the report, executed for a murder he did not commit.

Released online in The Columbia Human Rights Law Review, the narrative has received massive press attention in the last two days. Many in the media have already described the terrible story as a potential answer to Justice Scalia’s famous quip that if the United States ever executed the wrong man, “the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.”

The details of Carlos DeLuna’s story are far too numerous to fit into a single post, but keep reading for the key plot points. We also spoke with Shawn Crowley, a 2011 Columbia Law graduate and a co-author of the paper. She talked with us about how the project shaped her law school experience, and she gave some suggestions for other students who are looking for a more personal, relationship-based time in law school.

Let’s dig in…

In a very brief nutshell, Los Tocayos Carlos begins on February 4, 1983, when Wanda Lopez, a poor Hispanic single mother, was stabbed to death with a lock-blade buck knife while working at a convenience store in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Carlos DeLuna was convicted of the crime after just an afternoon of jury deliberations. He was executed in December 1989.

The Atlantic does a great job summarizing the basic facts of the case:

Texas convicted and executed DeLuna, all right, despite the fact that there was no blood or DNA evidence linking him to the scene of the crime. The state executed him despite the fact that the only eyewitness to the crime identified DeLuna while the suspect was sitting in the back of a police car parked in a dimly lit lot in front of the crime scene. Texas executed him despite the lack of DeLuna’s fingerprints at the crime scene and the lack of the victim’s hair and fibers on DeLuna. From a bloody scene, there was nothing.

Texas convicted and executed DeLuna despite the fact that the police and prosecutors knew or should have known that Lopez’s real murderer was a man named Carlos Hernandez, a violent criminal who looked almost exactly like DeLuna. Why? Because Hernandez was known to use the sort of knife used as the murder weapon. Because he matched initial descriptions of the suspect. Because he was known to be violent toward women. Oh, and because he evidently couldn’t stop bragging about how he had murdered Lopez and gotten someone else to take the fall for him.

The Atlantic piece, entitled “Yes, America, We Have Executed an Innocent Man,” also does a good job explaining the national implications of the story:

The Review article is an astonishing blend of narrative journalism, legal research, and gumshoe detective work. And it ought to end all reasonable debate in this country about whether an innocent man or woman has yet been executed in America since the modern capital punishment regime was recognized by the Supreme Court in 1976.

Los Tocayos Carlos fills 400 pages and contains several thousand footnotes. The official website for the project contains dozens of original source documents, including audio from the 911 call immediately preceding the murder, crime scene photos, and video footage of witness and family interviews. To say it is impressive would be a gross understatement.

(For what it’s worth, this is at least the second time in recent history that Texas has caught major national heat for its use of capital punishment. In 2009, the New Yorker published a lengthy story about Cameron Todd Willingham, another potentially wrongfully convicted and executed man. Do we see a trend yet?)

My interest in the story was particularly piqued because of the crucial role law students played. Click through to see highlights from my conversation with Shawn Crowley, a 2011 CLS grad who was one of the first students to join the project.

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