A massive report published today in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review claims that Carlos DeLuna was wrongly convicted of murdering Wanda Lopez in 1983 despite a mountain of evidence suggesting that another man with similar features and the same first name was the real killer.
Columbia School of Law professor James Liebman concluded at the end of his five-year investigation that "numerous missteps, missed clues and missed opportunities" led to the prosecution of DeLuna for a crime he didn't commit.
DeLuna was executed in 1989.
According to Liebman, "everything went wrong" in the Lopez murder case. A 24-year-old Corpus Christi resident, the divorced mother of one was stabbed to death while working the night shift at a gas station. In his report, Liebman points to clues missed or ignored by police and prosecutors that would have linked the crime to another man: Carlos Hernandez.
For starters, the sole eyewitness identified the killer as a mustachioed Hispanic man with a grey flannel shirt. DeLuna was clean-shaven and had a white dress shirt on. Additionally, the killer was reportedly spotted heading north; DeLuna was found east of the crime scene.
DeLuna, who told police he was running away because he had been drinking while on parole, claimed he spent time with Hernandez at a strip club that same night, and fingered him as the killer. Despite the fact that Hernandez was arrested just days after the Lopez murder and found to be carrying a buck knife, the prosecutor told the jury he was a figment of DeLuna's imagination.
Hernandez was eventually tried and convicted of murdering a different woman with the same blade, and later died in prison of cirrhosis claiming to his last breath that he was responsible for the murder of Wanda Lopez.
Both the lead prosecutor, Steve Schiwetz, and the lead investigator, Det. Olivia Escobedo, stand by the case.
"This case changed my whole view," says Prof. Liebman. The journal article he and five of his students wrote started life as a student project aimed at reviewing capital cases in Texas where conviction occurred on the basis of a single eyewitness account.
"I had thought the problem cases were ones where you have an out-of-town defendant, a scary person who commits a really bad crime that grabs the whole community," Liebman continued. "The police are under so much pressure to find someone that something goes wrong. Now, I think the worst cases are those that likely happen every day in which no one cares that much about the defendant or the victim."