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Eyewitness Testimony and Prosecutorial Misconduct Spotlighted Again as Texas Executed Another Innocent Man: the Wrongful Prosecution of Carlos DeLuna

In what universe does anyone really believe that eyewitness testimony is reliable?  Really?  We’ve written before about how criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors alike are well aware that witnesses are notoriously unreliable in giving accurate information about a crime. For example, read our earlier post discussing a Dallas Morning News expose where the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office routinely convicted innocent men with eyewitness testimony known to be faulty.

Heck, there are lots of psychological studies done on this, and why human beings just can’t give accounts about what happened at a certain date and time as if they were video recorders or dashcams.  Because they’re not.  Still, the system allows people to take the stand and give eyewitness testimony about serious crimes, finger pointing at defendants and crying out “yes, that’s the man I saw.”

Eyewitness Testimony, Mistaken Identity, and the Execution Killing of Carlos DeLuna, an Innocent Man

Perhaps the grisly reality that this practice has resulted in the State of Texas sending an innocent man to his execution in 1989 will change things: if so, then the mistaken identity case of Carlos DeLuna may bring with it some good.  Because there’s nothing good to say about it right now.

Long ago, a woman was murdered, and we know who did it and we know who was convicted of her murder and sentenced to death for it. The only evidence that supported Carlos DeLuna’s conviction?  Eyewitness testimony.   People took the witness stand, and under oath, told that jury that Carlos DeLuna was the man that stabbed Wanda Lopez to death that day while she worked at a Corpus Christi gas station’s convenience store.

That was all it took.  A little finger-pointing.   Too bad they had the wrong guy:  Carlos Hernandez, not Carlos DeLuna, killed Wanda Lopez.

Now, Columbia Law School has set up a website and is offering a free ebook that provides details on the 5 year research project undertaken by Columbia Law Professor James Liebman and his team of students.   You can check out their website here.  There are lots of very interesting interviews to watch on the site, including:

Eddie Garza, Corpus Christi Police Detective: While the prosecutor in DeLuna’s case said that Carlos Hernandez—the man DeLuna said was the actual killer—was a “phantom,” evidence uncovered years later shows not only that he existed, but that he was well-known to police and prosecutors at the time and had a long history of violent crimes.
Carroll Pickett, Texas Death House Chaplain: Even at the midnight hour, when there was nothing left to lose and the Death House Chaplain heard confessions from most of the other 95 inmates he ushered to their deaths, DeLuna said, “I didn’t do it.”

You can read their free ebook here. Or download it in pdf format or order a hard print copy, if you prefer. Columbia Law is making every effort to get this research circulated to as many folk as possible – and that is great.  Lawyers please note that this ebook is also Issue 3 of Volume 43 of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, entitled “Los Tocayos Carlos,” by James S. Liebman, Shawn Crowley, Andrew Markquart, Lauren Rosenberg, Lauren Gallo White, and Daniel Zharkovsky (43 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 711 (2012)).

Prosecutorial Misconduct?  You Betcha.

Reading through the compilation of the Columbia research team and you’ll find not only a reliance on obviously untrustworthy eyewitness testimony (witnesses who point the finger only after they’ve seen DeLuna cuffed and setting in the back of a police car shouldn’t be relied upon for accuracy here), but you’ll also find police looking the other way when evidence pointed away from DeLuna being their man as well as, surprise surprise, prosecutorial misconduct in the matter.

Prosecutors did many bad things in the Carlos DeLuna case. Things like not turning over evidence to the defense that would clear him (exonerating evidence).  Things like telling the jury that  Carlos Hernandez, was just a ghost (“phantom”) of Carlos DeLuna’s imagination when DeLuna said that he knew Carlos Hernandez to be the true killer (having seen Hernandez go into the store that night) — all while the prosecutors not only knew that Carlos Hernandez was a real man and no ghost, but that he had a history of being violent and using a knife in assaults on people.  (Hernandez was later convicted for murdering another woman and repeatedly confessed that he was the man who had killed Wanda Lopez.)

So, what happens now?  Bet that not too many Texas prosecutors are losing sleep over this – with the way things are right now, they must feel very, very safe from accountability.

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