by Darcia Helle
“I didn’t do it, but I know who did.”
Imagine you are a 20-year-old, uneducated man-child who has spent his entire life in a small, crime-infested community. Your family defines dysfunctional, but you don’t think about that because you don’t know what a functional family looks like. Add to this the fact that you’re a minority in a city where prejudice runs rampant. One day you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, and suddenly you find yourself arrested and charged with the brutal murder of a young woman. You tell everyone who will listen that you did not kill her. In fact, despite your fear, you provide police with the name of the real killer.
You have confidence in the justice system. They will see that you are not the killer. They will find the real killer and set you free. You believe this up until the moment the state puts you to death for a crime you did not commit.
The Wrong Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution is the true story of our imagined young man. Carlos DeLuna was arrested in February, 1983 and executed on December 7, 1989. This case was pushed through the Texas courts with alarming speed. The average US death penalty case takes about 13 years to go through the appeals process. Carlos had six years from arrest to death.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this case is old and things like this don’t happen anymore. We have far more sophisticated science. We have DNA tests. Sadly, you’d be mistaken in your trust of our modern judicial system. Carlos DeLuna’s case could just as easily happen today. We need to acknowledge all the wrong in our justice system before we can hope to get things right.
Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1960, Carlos’s mother, Margarita Conejo, moved to the La Armada housing project in Corpus Christi, Texas, with her six children after having divorced their father Francisco Conejo. There she met Joe DeLuna, and together she and Joe had three children in the three following years. Carlos DeLuna was the middle of these three children, born on March 15, 1962.
Joe DeLuna couldn’t be bothered to hang around and take care of his children. Margarita found herself with nine children, no money, and no patience. The job of raising Carlos was left to his older half-siblings.
By all accounts, Carlos was emotionally stunted, learning disabled bordering on mildly retarded, and “childlike”. In March of 1974, school psychologists diagnosed him with a “language-learning disorder”. Two years later, another school evaluation found him to have “fine-motor difficulty,” “specific learning deficits,” and “possible neurological difficulties.” Neither school officials nor his mother found the time or the right programs to help Carlos get even the most basic education. In the spring of 1977, at the age of 15, Carlos dropped out of school after having struggled through to just the eighth grade.
Carlos was no angel, nor did he claim to be. He was arrested multiple times for theft, intoxication, and sniffing paint. He was very much a boy left to fend for himself in a harsh and unforgiving environment. But Carlos was never violent. Despite multiple arrests, at no time was Carlos ever in possession of any sort of weapon. Anyone who knew Carlos said the same thing: he did not carry or even own a knife.
Carlos Hernandez, on the other hand, was not childlike or even remotely innocent. Born on July 14, 1954, Hernandez spent his life in the same neighborhood as Carlos DeLuna. They were never friends, but they did know one another. Everyone knew Hernandez, and everyone feared him.
In 1960, when Hernandez was just six years old, his father was arrested for rape and his mother placed him in foster care. He returned to his mother a year later, though life never got easier. His father did not return home and his mother would not be winning any parenting awards.
In 1972, Hernandez was arrested on three counts of armed robbery of a gas station/convenience store. While in county jail, he was raped by at least one older inmate. This pushed the already unbalanced man who was prone to violence right over the edge. From then on, Hernandez always carried a knife. He cultivated a tough guy image, brandishing his knife and bullying people into doing what he wanted.
Over the following years, Hernandez was arrested multiple times for assault and even suspicion of murder. Hernandez always had a specific type of fixed-blade knife on him. He was also known to be extremely abusive to the women in his life. Despite his reputation, Hernandez managed to evade any hard prison time. When necessary he expertly manipulated the justice system, though often he slipped through the cracks without much effort at all.
With this history in mind, we move forward to February 4, 1983. Wanda Lopez, a young, single mother living in the same neglected neighborhood, was murdered while working the night shift at Sigmor Shamrock gas station. But telling you she was murdered is putting a shiny gloss on a dirty, vulgar act. Wanda was gutted with a knife. She was sliced up, dragged about, beaten, and left for dead. This act was brutal and personal. This was not a robbery gone bad, though the homicide detectives did their best to spin it that way.
At the exact time of Wanda’s murder, she was on the phone with 911 – for the second time – asking for help. Moments earlier, she’d made her first 911 call. She’d told the dispatcher that a man with a knife was outside the store and she was afraid, but the dispatcher had refused to help unless and until the man actually did something. When the man walked into the store, she called again. This time she was connected to a different dispatcher, and he made her repeat her story. He questioned her as if she was the suspect, demanding to know all the specifics. By the time he agreed to send help to Wanda, she was already being attacked. This is captured on the 911 recording, which you can listen to here: http://www3.law.columbia.edu/hrlr/ltc/media.html?type=audio&url=http%3A%2F%2Fmedia.law.columbia.edu%2Fjliebman%2Fmedia%2F35-911-call-by-wanda-lopez.mp3
You might have guessed that the man in the store was Carlos Hernandez. At the time he was deciding to murder Wanda Lopez, Carlos DeLuna was standing across the street. He saw what was happening and ran. He was terrified of Hernandez and also terrified of the police. He was a child running for cover.
Hernandez left Wanda for dead, pushed out the door directly past a witness stepping inside, and raced off in the opposite direction from which Carlos DeLuna had run. The witness who came face-to-face with Hernandez saw which way he ran. But other people passing by the area saw Carlos DeLuna running the opposite way, and they assumed he was the killer. These conflicting eye-witness accounts were inconvenient to detectives arriving on the scene. Within minutes, police had compressed the differing descriptions into one person. Carlos DeLuna became that person when he was quickly found hiding beneath a truck nearby.
Police then bullied the reluctant witnesses into participating in a “show-up” identification. Carlos was driven back to the crime scene and witnesses were assured they had their man, and that he’d been found hiding under a truck. One-by-one, the witnesses were walked to the squad car, where Carlos sat in the back. A cop shined a flashlight directly in Carlos’s eyes so, according to the detectives, he wouldn’t be able to see the witnesses. Out in that dark parking lot, these terrified witnesses with disjointed stories who’d been told Carlos was the killer, were prompted to identify him. When a couple of them were reluctant, they were, for lack of a better word, coerced.
The one man who’d nearly walked into the killer hesitated but eventually agreed that Carlos DeLuna was the person he saw running out of the store. Years later, the authors of The Wrong Carlos questioned him:
Baker didn’t mince words. He had trouble recalling Hispanic names; they were all “Julio” to him, he said. And he had trouble telling Hispanics apart and judging their age. “It’s tough,” he said, “to identify cross cultures.”
This is not simply an issue of prejudice. All of us, regardless of how liberal our thinking, have more difficulty identifying and remembering specific features of people outside our own race. Add to that inherent shortcoming the fact that these witnesses were under tremendous stress, both from being involved in a murder scene and from the police pressure to help them make an arrest, and it’s not surprising that they instead got it horribly wrong.
The Innocence Project has this to say about eyewitness identifications:
Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.
And this leads us straight to the issue of DNA. Had Carlos DeLuna been arrested in 2014 instead of 1983, would DNA evidence have saved him? The answer is maybe.
First, to understand how absurd the arrest was from the start, I need you to picture the scene. As I mentioned, Wanda Lopez’s murder was brutal. There was quite literally blood everywhere. There were puddles of it in the store. The killer had dragged her through it. His bloody footprints tracked along the floor and out into the parking lot. When Carlos DeLuna was pulled out from beneath that truck, he did not have one speck of blood on him. None. Police explained this by saying he’d washed it off in a puddle. Corpus Christi had 1/8-inch of rain early the morning of Wanda’s murder. More than twelve hours later, it’s difficult to believe Carlos would find a deep enough puddle to fully wash away every trace of blood, all while desperately running away.
Furthermore, Carlos DeLuna had never been known to carry a knife and had never been violent. His first words to the cops who found him were: “I didn’t do it, but I know who did.” Those cops told him to shut up. Even much later, when Carlos finally broke through his fear of Hernandez and gave his name to police, not one person looked into the possibility that Carlos DeLuna was telling the truth. This, despite the fact that Hernandez was known to carry the exact same knife and had a history of violent behavior.
So much was wrong with this case from the very beginning. Some other highlights: Evidence was not collected. The lead homicide detective had never worked a homicide on her own. She spent one hour inside the store, then allowed the owner to scrub everything clean. She did not collect blood samples from inside, did not swab all the areas, did not look closely at the footprints in the blood or the handprints by the cash register. She completely ignored the fact that there was money scattered all over the floor and the owner told her that, at most, $20 was missing. Also, despite this being a vicious murder, no one questioned the fact that, aside from living in the same area, Carlos DeLuna had absolutely no connection to Wanda Lopez. He had a regular job, and none of the money in his pocket held even a tiny speck of blood. Given the magnitude of this botched case, it’s difficult to know how or if DNA could have helped. Really, all that was needed was for someone to listen to Carlos.
The topic of DNA is interesting in itself. The prosecution collects the evidence and decides which tests, if any, to run. If they feel their case is strong enough without DNA, they won’t bother. DNA tests are expensive and it’s better for their budget if they can avoid the cost. On the flip side, and showing my cynicism, maybe they also won’t initiate testing if they feel the results might muddle their chances of a win. The state is under no obligation to perform any forensic tests. Furthermore, and this is vital, the state is also under no obligation to approve the costs of these tests if the court appointed defense attorney requests them. Carlos DeLuna was poor, and poor men can’t afford private attorneys. They must make do with whichever lawyer the court appoints for them. And that lawyer must do his/her job under the constraints of a miniscule budget. This disparity is one major reason you will likely never see a wealthy person on death row.
According to this book’s authors:
The worst problem with executions is that the truth about them can so easily die with the executed prisoner. Sadly, the certainty that DNA and other forensic testing now makes possible has not changed this situation. This is because once executions occur, the same officials whose deadly mistakes might be exposed by DNA testing are given control over the crucial physical evidence in the case and consistently bar forensic testing of – or, as in Carlos DeLuna’s case, simply lose – the evidence. The public has no recourse to freedom of information laws or the courts to obtain forensic testing. The steadfast refusal of legislators, judges, and prosecutors to allow forensic testing that could provide unassailable proof of the accuracy, or not, of executions makes it difficult to credit those officials’ repeated assurances that the men and women whose executions they have sanctioned were undoubtedly guilty.
The details of this case are far too dense and convoluted for me to do justice to here. Carlos DeLuna was pushed through a system that did its best to ignore his innocence, while Carlos Hernandez fell through every crack and blissfully went on to rape and murder again. Carlos DeLuna went to the death chamber professing his innocence, pleading for just one person to do his/her job correctly and find Carlos Hernandez. Even in the moment of his state-sanctioned murder, Carlos DeLuna was not offered a shred of dignity. The first of three injections, meant to render Carlos unconscious, failed, and Carlos was conscious when the second, paralyzing drug entered his system and began suffocating him to death.
Please click to below to view Darcia’s Helle’s many excellent posts:
Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.
Join Darcia in her fictional world: www.QuietFuryBooks.com
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