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Investigation Suggests Texas Executed the Wrong Man in '89 for Murder

A newspaper pulls apart the case against Carlos DeLuna, pointing to his acquaintance instead.

June 25, 2006|Maurice Possley and Steve Mills | Chicago Tribune

For many years, few questioned whether Carlos DeLuna deserved to die.

His execution closed the book on the fatal stabbing in Corpus Christi, Texas, of Wanda Lopez, 24, a single mother and gas station clerk whose final, desperate screams were captured on a 911 tape.

Arrested just blocks from the bloody crime scene, DeLuna was swiftly convicted and sentenced to death, though the parolee proclaimed his innocence and identified another man as the killer.

But 16 years after DeLuna died by lethal injection, the Chicago Tribune has uncovered evidence strongly suggesting that the acquaintance he named, Carlos Hernandez, was the one who killed Lopez on a February evening in 1983.

Ending years of silence, Hernandez's relatives and friends recounted how the violent felon repeatedly bragged that DeLuna went to death row for a murder Hernandez committed.

The newspaper investigation, involving interviews with dozens of people and a review of thousands of pages of court records, also shows the case was compromised by shaky eyewitness identification, sloppy police work, and a failure to thoroughly pursue Hernandez as a possible suspect.

These revelations, which cast significant doubt on DeLuna's conviction, were never heard by the jury. DeLuna, who had previously served time for attempted aggravated assault, was at the time of the killing newly released from prison after a parole violation. He was arrested about 40 minutes after the attack, lying shirtless and shoeless under a truck not far from the station.

His case appears to be one of the most compelling examples yet of the discovery of possible innocence after a prisoner's execution.

Presented with the results of the newspaper's inquiry, DeLuna's prosecutors say they still believe they convicted the right man. But the lead prosecutor acknowledged he was troubled by some of the new information. And a former police detective told the newspaper that he got tips about Hernandez shortly after the crime and now believed the wrong man was executed.

Missing from this case is DNA or some other kind of evidence that could provide conclusive proof of DeLuna's guilt or innocence.

The store wasn't equipped with a security camera that could have captured images of the killer.

The newspaper learned of DeLuna from a Columbia University law professor who had begun to dig up evidence that pointed to Hernandez, who died in 1999.

The possibility of DeLuna's innocence played no role in his final appeal, which focused on his lawyers' failure to present any mitigating evidence at his sentencing.

When that failed, and when Texas' governor declined to grant him clemency, DeLuna, 27, quietly accepted his fate a few minutes after midnight on Dec. 7, 1989. He thanked the warden for being treated well by the guards and prayed on his knees with the chaplain.

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