Friday, May 7, 2010

The Case of Carlos DeLuna

The case of Carlos DeLuna is one of the more simple cases to comprehend. I'll try to be quick.

Corpus Christi, Texas, February 1983. George Aguirre pulls into a gas station and notices a man outside with a knife. The man asks Aguirre for a ride. Aguirre declines. The man goes to the side of the building. Aguirre goes inside and warns the clerk, Wanda Lopez, about the man with the knife. Aguirre leaves. 

Lopez calls 911 and tells them about the man with the knife. They say they can't do anything, that she should call back if he comes inside. The man with the knife comes inside. Wanda Lopez calls 911 again and tells them that the man with the knife has come inside. She begins to scream. The 911 operator records the last moments of Wanda's life.

As Lopez is being stabbed repeatedly, Kevin Baker pulls up for gas. He sees the attack and sees the attacker flee the scene. Lopez staggers outside, mortally wounded. Baker runs inside, grabs some paper towels, and tries to stop the bleeding. There is no hope.

Police descend on the gas station and begin the man hunt. Forty minutes later, they find Carlos DeLuna hiding under a truck. He's wearing dress slacks, but he has no shirt and no shoes. They put DeLuna into the squad car and take him back to the station where both Aguirre and Baker identify him as the attacker.

During his trial, DeLuna is convicted based on the eye witness testimony of Aguirre and Baker. Against his attorney's advice, DeLuna testifies and claims the real murderer is somebody named Carlos Hernandez. The prosecution labels Hernandez a "phantom", and use DeLuna's claim as further proof of his false testimony. 

DeLuna is convicted rapidly, and sentenced to die. His appellant attorneys are pathetic, and DeLuna sets a record short time from conviction to execution.

Of course, there are problems with the case, or I would not be writing about it. It turns out there indeed was someone named Carlos Hernandez who had a history of attacking women with a knife. It turns out also that the prosecution knew that. At least the assistant prosecutor, Ken Botary, knew.

Botary had prosecuted another murder case and lost after defense lawyers argued that Carlos Hernandez was the real killer. Botary interviewed Hernandez before that trial and cross-examined him on the witness stand. Botary was even called in that earlier trial to testify about his interview of Hernandez. Yet Botary sat there silent as his colleague told the DeLuna jury that Hernandez was a "Phantom."

There's another problem.  DeLuna and Hernandez look alike. I'm not talking similar. I'm talking dead ringers.

That's DeLuna on the left, Hernandez on the right. Now place yourself in the shoes of the witness. You just witnessed a grisly  murder, or events leading up to the murder, it was dark, you got a close or not so close look at someone under terrifying circumstances, the police pull up in a squad car with one of them in the back seat, they shine a flashlight on him, they tell you they found him hiding under a car. Now, you tell me, is that the man you saw?

And there's another problem. When you described the assailant, he was wearing a gray sweatshirt or flannel shirt. When DeLuna's shirt and shoes were found the next day, it turned out he was wearing a  white, button-down shirt. Despite the brutal stabbing, and despite the bloody scene, the police found no blood on DeLuna's person, clothes, or money. Nor did they find any of his fingerprints at the scene, or on the bloody knife left behind by the killer. In fact, the prosecution had zero forensic evidence to tie DeLuna to the crime. The case depended exclusively on the eye witness testimony of Aguirre and Baker, and on Hernandez being a "phantom."

DeLuna's defense team didn't believe him even enough to search for Hernandez. The assistant prosecutor knew of Hernandez, but kept that from the defense team. One of the police investigators on the case also knew of Hernandez, having run into him before under less than pleasant circumstances. That investigator too failed to inform the defense of Hernandez' existence and propensity for knifing women.

Hernandez had been previously indicted for the murder of his girlfriend Dahlia Sauceda. She was found in the back of a van, along with Hernandez' underwear, and a beer can with his fingerprints. Someone had carved an "X" in her back. Though the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence, Hernandez later bragged about having killed her.

Hernandez also assaulted his wife, Rosa Anzaldua, with an ax handle. He sliced open his "friend", Dina Ybanez, from navel to sternum. He served time for those attacks.

After DeLuna's conviction, at least six people heard Hernandez tell them or others that he had killed Wanda Lopez: Diane Gomez (girlfriend); Dina Ybanez (friend); Janie Adrian (friend); Fidela (neighbor); Priscilla Jaramillo (niece); Beatrice Tapia (niece's friend). Some reported that Hernandez mocked DeLuna for taking the rap.

As for DeLuna, he steadfastly proclaimed his innocence from the beginning to the end. The death row chaplain was so convinced of DeLuna's innocence, a first for him, that he has long had difficulty coming to grips with that case. The third YouTube clip included below is a trailer for a video made about that chaplain and his involvement with Carlos DeLuna.

I present my Actual Innocence Scorecard for DeLuna. I scored him at 83. I thought he would come in higher as I worked on the scorecard. He scored poorly, though, on his past behavior and on his alibi. Questions remain to this day about why he was nearby that night, about his association with Carlos Hernandez, about how he came to be found without shirt and shoes, and about why he was running from the police. (He claims to have been scared because he had a rap sheet and figured the police would try to pin the crime on him. He claims to have lost his shirt scaling a fence.) I leave open the possibility that he at least knew Hernandez planned to rob a store, and perhaps even planned to participate or benefit in some fashion. I seriously doubt, however, that he killed Wanda Lopez.

Below I've embedded three YouTube clips about the case. Watch them as you wish. Next to be scored is Ruben Cantu.


Anonymous said...

Aside from the innocent ones that have unfortunately been wrongly accused and paid the ultimate price for a crime that belongings to another....I have serious issues with the Pastor's last statement "No man should die alone"...ummm, how about the victims those animals killed to get themselves on death row in the first place....did they have a friend holding their hand and comforting them as the bullets went the knives plunged into their flesh was somebody standing there giving them comfort and saying "I promise this isn't going to hurt" ? Uh, no, probably not.
God Bless this man for doing what he thinks is right and just - but a lot more guilty people are put to death than innocent - so don't put away those needles boys !!

tsj said...

It seems to me that's a rather lax standard regarding executing the innocent among us: "a lot more guilty people are put to death than innocent"

I don't think we should be executing anyone who is factually innocent of the crime for which they are sentenced to death, even if most of the ones we execute are indeed factually guilty.

Since I believe we are in fact imprisoning and even executing far too many of the innocent among us, I am trying to do something to correct the problem, both publicly and behind the scenes.

It may not surprise you then, that I'm not particularly compelled by your closing "don't put away those needles boys!!"

Perhaps you believe it will make you seem clever. On this site, however, I ask those who comment to rely more heavily on reasoned argument.

Anonymous said...

I believe we should forgive or we are the ones carrying that burden. I can't imagine what you've been through with every execution you've been part of keep doing what you're doing. I have forgiven the man who viciously rape my young daughter now the man who took her innocence. Now as a woman she has complications bearing a child. We leave the past behind and a look forward for a new beginning.

tsj said...

I am sorry to hear of the hardship that has befallen your family.

It's generous of you to express concern for my state of mind. I have no doubt, however, that my burden is far less weighty than yours. To borrow your words, I can't imagine what you've been through.

We must each manage with the hand we are dealt. I offer you and yours my sincere best wishes.

-- John

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