by Jeremy Leaming
With an increasing number of states dispensing with or reconsidering capital punishment, the Columbia Human Rights Law Review (HRLR) has released an exhaustive issue, which should push more state lawmakers to join the discussion. The HRLR issue provides compelling and highly troubling documentation of the likely wrongful 1989 Texas execution of Carlos DeLuna.
As Andrew Cohen writes for the Atlantic the HRLR’s issue, “an astonishing blend of narrative journalism, legal research, and gumshoe detective work,” should be read, especially by Justice Antonin Scalia, who in a 2006 concurrence staunchly defended the integrity of capital punishment cases, saying they are “given especially close scrutiny at every level ….”
Since being reinstituted in the United States, Texas has executed more inmates than all other states, except for California and Florida, where the death row populations are higher. In the last five years, however, five states have chosen to abolish capital punishment, with Connecticut the most recent. Californians in November will consider a ballot measure to end the death penalty.
HRLR’s issue called Los Tocayos Carlos, provides a stunning account of a criminal justice system gone terribly awry, with prosecutors, witnesses, judges all faltering in ways that tragically bungled a capital punishment case. While these officials and actors ignored evidence to the contrary, the likely perpetrator, Carlos Hernandez, continued a life of violent crime after DeLuna was convicted and sitting on death row.
In a press release about the report, Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman, and lead author of the issue, said, “Carlos DeLuna’s execution passed with little notice. No one cared enough about the defendant or the victim [Wanda Lopez stabbed to death working at a convenience mart in Corpus Christi] to make sure they caught the right guy. Everything that could go wrong in a death penalty case did go wrong for DeLuna. Sadly, DeLuna’s story is not unique. The very same factors that sent DeLuna to his death – faulty eyewitness testimony, shoddy legal representation, prosecutorial misfeasance – continue to put innocent people at risk of execution today.”
Indeed, Cohen’s piece provides a string of cases that Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, among others, provided him that carry similar troubling issues, raising doubt of death penalty sentences. In March, ACS conducted a screening and panel discussion of wrongful convictions in Mississippi, where one of the convicts, Kennedy Brewer, was sentenced to death but exonerated with DNA evidence that he fought years to bring forth. Both cases were replete with prosecutorial misconduct and police bungling and hardly any oversight of procedural safeguards.
The HRLR issue documents how DeLuna was convicted on one flimsy “eyewitness” account, with no corroborating evidence. Moreover, Professor Liebman and his team revealed that Carlos Hernandez had a violent criminal record that was well-known to police and prosecutors at the time of DeLuna’s trial, and that prosecutors failed to provide the information to the defense team.
Although HRLR encourages individuals to read the issue and “decide for yourself what happened,” Cohen, also a legal analyst for “60 Minutes,” concluded that on “December 7, 1989, this intense piece establishes beyond any reasonable doubt, Texas executed” DeLuna for a murder committed by Hernandez, who apparently spent years bragging about the matter.
Justice Scalia and his right-wing cohorts on the high court may have convinced themselves that capital punishment in the nation’s criminal justice system is sound, secure and reliable. But those justices should, especially Scalia, as Cohen notes, read this remarkable and chilling work by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.