Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?

After a five year investigation, a new report concludes that Carlos DeLuna had nothing to do with the murder for which he was put to death in 1989.

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Corpus Christi Police Department

A probe has found that Texas may have executed a Hispanic man for a 1983 murder he had nothing to do with — and which another man repeatedly admitted to before the sentence was carried out.

Carlos DeLuna was put to death in 1989 for the killing of Wanda Lopez, a single mom stabbed to death during the robbery of a Corpus Christi gas station. But according to the results of a five-year study by Columbia Law School experts, DeLuna had the misfortune for looking just like the real killer, which the report identifies as Carlos Hernandez – so much so that relatives of both men often mistook them.

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The report, Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution, published by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, was put together by Columbia Law School professor James Liebman, head of the team that investigated the case. It reviews the string of likely missteps that led to DeLuna’s execution. To begin with, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time: DeLuna happened to visit the gas station that night, Feb. 4, 1983. But while reports described the killer as a Hispanic male wearing a grey flannel shirt, DeLuna was wearing a white dress shirt the night of the attack. Despite the bloody crime scene, no blood was found on DeLuna’s body or clothes. The prosecution’s case rested mainly on the shaky testimony of a single eyewitness. All this was complicated, the report says, by botched police procedures, an ineffective defense attorney and the unwillingness of the prosecution to consider a second suspect. And the report claims there was plenty of doubt even at the time as to whether DeLuna was the culprit. As MSNBC notes:

DeLuna, a junior high drop out, had a low IQ and had been arrested for low-level crimes but was better known for huffing paint. Carlos Hernandez, by contrast, had raped children in the neighborhood and had been arrested for assaulting his wife with an ax handle, according to the Columbia University report.

According to the AFP:

Hernandez, known for using a blade in his attacks, was later jailed for murdering a woman with the same knife. But in the trial, the lead prosecutor told the jury that Hernandez was nothing but a “phantom” of DeLuna’s imagination.

And the kicker:

Up to the day he died in prison of cirrhosis of the liver, Hernandez repeatedly admitted to murdering Wanda Lopez, Liebman said.

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Not everyone is convinced by Liebman’s case, including those who were closest to the original trial. Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka, who joined the county in 1986 but was not involved with DeLuna’s case, said the jury’s conviction stands. “Those people have already made up their mind, it doesn’t matter what anyone says,” he told the Corpus Christi Caller. Investigators like Liebman “try to find these people and try to make them innocent, but they don’t look at all the ones who are guilty as sin.” Even DeLuna’s original defense lawyer, James Lawrence, is unswayed. “If you tell me they killed the wrong guy, I don’t know,” he told the Associated Press.

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The problem of executing prisoners despite considerable remaining doubt over their guilt continues to remain an issue as states grapple with the death penalty. Last year, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia for the murder of policeman Mark MacPhail despite the fact that crucial witnesses recanted their testimony, prompting outcry from capital punishment opponents and civil rights leaders.  For DeLuna, however, any vindication would come far too late. “Everything went wrong in this case,” Liebman said.

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Erica Ho is a contributor at TIME and the editor of Map Happy. Find her on Twitter at @ericamho and Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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