10 Innocent People Who Were Executed, Part One: Carlos De Luna

English jurist William Blackstone once said, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

This is the basis of the American legal tradition. The system is designed to not convict, out of extreme caution when dealing with the freedom of any citizen under the law.

Unfortunately the desire for revenge and judicial punishment means that the public is often ignorant of this basic premise of our system, instead preferring to see a conviction and an execution when time would reveal the accused to be innocent.

The desire for revenge is often confused with the desire for justice. it is not so satisfying when justice means that a crime goes unavenged. The public clamors for blood, and the system is often compelled to produce a victim for the public.

Even lawyers are indoctrinated with this concept early in law school. Whether you support with the death penalty or not, most individuals would agree with the statement above. “It is better for one hundred guilty men to go free, than for one innocent man to go to jail.”

Despite the United State’s innocent-until-proven-guilty legal system, there are several cases where a presumably innocent person is convicted of a crime, some even put to death.

Sadly, we may never get a chance to find out the truth. The recent inclusion of DNA evidence in trials has been used in some cases to clear many people falsely convicted.

Carlos De Luna

Executed in 1989

In February 1983, Wanda Lopez, was stabbed to death during her night shift at the gas station where she worked. After a brief manhunt, police found De Luna hiding under a pick-up truck. Recently released from prison, he was violating his parole by drinking in public.

The reason he was hiding would be easy enough to understand. The desire to avoid violating his parole motivated De Luna to hide. If he was guilty of murder, he might have ran away.

But the police were not able to see this obvious contradiction.

The Guardian explains the details of the investigation,

There was no scraping of the victim’s fingernails for traces of the attacker’s skin. When Liebman and his students studied digitally enhanced copies of crime scene photographs, they were amazed to find the footprint from a man’s shoe imprinted in a pool of Lopez’s blood on the floor – yet no effort was made to measure it. [1]

In his investigation, Columbia Law School Professor Jim Liebman wrote,

“There it was,” says Liebman. “The murderer had left his calling card at the scene, but it was never used.”

Even the murder weapon, the knife, was not properly examined, though it was covered in blood and flesh.

Other photographs show Lopez’s blood splattered up to three feet high on the walls of the Shamrock counter. Yet when DeLuna’s clothes and shoes were tested for traces of blood, not a single microscopic drop was found. The prosecution said it must have been washed away by the rain.[2]

De Luna immediately told police that he was innocent and he offered the name of the person who he saw at the gas station. Police ignored the fact that he did not have a drop of blood on him even though the crime scene was covered in blood.

Police had an easy target in De Luna. Doing any investigation might delay their arrest and reward for a job well done. being the arresting officers in such a terrible murder would look good on their record, and might benefit their career later on.

De Luna was arrested too soon after the crime to clean himself up. The arresting officers did not make notice of this.

Carlos-DeLuna-crime-scene-008

At trial De Luna named Carlos Hernandez as the man he saw inside the gas station, across the street from the bar where De Luna had been drinking. Hernandez and DeLuna were strikingly similar in appearance but, unlike DeLuna, Hernandez had a long history of knife attacks similar to the convenience store killing and repeatedly told friends and relatives that he had committed the murder.

The prosecuting told the jury that police had looked for a “Carlos Hernandez” after his name had been passed to them by DeLuna’s lawyers, without success. They had concluded that Hernandez was a fabrication, a “phantom” who simply did not exist.

Los-tacoyos-Carlos-007
Carlos De Luna and Carlos Hernandez looked strikingly similar

The chief prosecutor said in summing up that Hernandez was a “figment of DeLuna’s imagination”.  The single eyewitness to the crime, Kevin Baker, confirmed to police that De Luna was the murderer after police told him he was the right guy.

It is curious to consider why the police would take the word of Kevin Baker over the information supplied by De Luna about another man killing Wanda Lopez. Perhaps his parole situation made him less reliable in the minds of police.

Investigating the crime four years later, Columbia Law School Professor Jim Liebman and twelve law school students were able to quickly and quite easily find large inconsistencies in the State’s case against De Luna.

“It was a house of cards. We found that everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” he says.

Carlos Hernandez was an alcoholic with a history of violence, who was always in the company of his trusted companion: a lock-blade buck knife.

Over the years he was arrested 39 times, 13 of them for carrying a knife, and spent his entire adult life on parole. Yet he was almost never put in prison for his crimes – a disparity that Liebman believes was because he was used as a police informant.

At trial De Luna named Carlos Hernandez as the man he saw inside the gas station, across the street from the bar where De Luna had been drinking. Hernandez and DeLuna were strikingly similar in appearance but, unlike DeLuna, Hernandez had a long history of knife attacks similar to the convenience store killing and repeatedly told friends and relatives that he had committed the murder.

Friends confirmed that Carlos Hernandez was romantically linked to Wanda Lopez as well. De Luna’s lawyers knew of Hernandez’s criminal past but never thoroughly investigated his previous crimes.

The testimony of the arresting officers, along with De Luna’s prior conviction was all that was necessary to convict De Luna of the murder, and the sentence of death followed soon thereafter.

Carlos DeLuna commented on his own ending in a television interview a couple of years before his execution. “Maybe one day the truth will come out,” he said from behind reinforced glass. “I’m hoping it will. If I end up getting executed for this, I don’t think it’s right.” [3]

The protection that the real killer received from police was apparently due to his value as an informant. In essence, the police became an accessory to the crime, helping Carlos Hernandez get away with murder.

On December 7, 1989, Texas executed 27-year old Carlos De Luna.

The unconscious bias that a jury has for police officers on the stand needs to be considered if our system is to operate as it was designed. Unfortunately, because the word of an arresting officer, combined with a prosecutor seeking to satisfy a public bent on revenge rather than justice, makes everyone in danger of suffering a fate similar to Carlos De Luna.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” download.png

If you think this could never happen to you, remember that Carlos De Luna probably thought that same thing himself.


[1] The Guardian

[2] The Wrong Carlos

[2] The Guardian

Please read The Wrong Carlos, and support Historydojo, by clicking on this link.

Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

3 thoughts on “10 Innocent People Who Were Executed, Part One: Carlos De Luna

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.