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Last Call From Death Row
Seeking the truth during a final conversation
The phone call came late on a chilly December night. I didn’t expect the matter-of-fact voice on the other end; in fact, I didn’t expect the call at all. It chilled me far more than the frosty Ohio air. “This is the Texas Department of Corrections, will you accept a call from Carlos DeLuna?” asked the voice. “Yes, of course,” I said. It would be my last conversation with Carlos DeLuna, and his last phone call … ever. A little over an hour later, he
would be dead.
When I saw him for the first time, Carlos DeLuna was just 20 years old. He was clad in an ill-fitting gray suit and seemed to almost swagger in an incongruous manner as he was brought down the tunnel between the Nueces County Jail and the courthouse in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was somewhat good-looking, with thick, wavy hair that was a little too long. He had deep, brown doe-like eyes that I assumed belied a much more sinister side of his personality. After all, he was accused of a cold-blooded killing.
I was a young reporter assigned to cover his murder trial, one that would become the summer’s sensation, mostly because the dying woman’s heart-wrenching pleas were recorded on police tapes and ultimately released to the media. At first, I didn’t think Carlos DeLuna looked like a killer. But once the prosecution laid out its case there would be little doubt in anyone’s mind that he brutally stabbed gas station clerk, Wanda Lopez, to death during a robbery just a few months earlier on Feb. 4, 1983. Trouble was, we didn’t know what we were missing.
Now, nearly 23 years after his execution, the “missing pieces” are finally emerging and painting a picture of unconscionable indifference to the truth. Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and a team of law students have uncovered what appears to be irrefutable proof that Carlos DeLuna was innocent. In the Columbia Human Rights Law Review Vol. 43, No. 2 published on May 15, 2012, the team outlines its case in “Los Tocayos Carlos, Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution.” The compelling book-length report documents police incompetence, disregarded evidence, flawed eyewitness identification and a code of silence that left the real killer free to commit more murder and mayhem. At a time when states like Louisiana are exonerating more and more wrongly convicted persons and repeal of the death penalty is being considered by states such as California, the revelations in the case of Carlos DeLuna are providing stunning new arguments in the capital punishment debate. The report has received worldwide attention and affirmation from prestigious news organizations, including The New York Times.
On a sweltering summer day in south Texas in 1983, Carlos DeLuna was convicted of capital murder even though there was no physical evidence linking him to the bloody crime scene, no fingerprints and no blood on his clothes. DeLuna claimed he saw an acquaintance named Carlos Hernandez commit the crime and ran because he was on parole and scared he, too, would be implicated. He was found hiding under a car nearby and brought back to the gas station where a single “white” witness identified DeLuna as the Hispanic man he briefly saw fleeing the scene. It was enough for a conviction and prosecutors convinced a jury that he should die.
I watched in equal fascination and horror as the case unfolded. I couldn’t believe that such shaky evidence could condemn a man to die. At the time though, only police and prosecutors knew how shaky that evidence really was. Throughout his trial, and subsequent years on death row, Carlos DeLuna continued to proclaim his innocence. In fact, he refused a plea deal that would have saved his life because he believed the truth would eventually be revealed. But no one ever found Carlos Hernandez, or at least that’s what the world was led to believe. One year after he was sent to death row in Huntsville, Texas, I interviewed DeLuna in prison. He wouldn’t say much because his case was on appeal and he was putting his faith in the process. I asked him what he would do if he were released. He said, “I would preach the word of God, ma’am.” I was skeptical of his newfound religion, as well as his innocence. But something about Carlos DeLuna got to me.
After that visit, he began to write to me. He talked about being on Death Row … only he called it Death “Roll.” It seemed to me he never had much of a chance. He was poor, Hispanic and lacking in education and paternal love. He grew up in the projects, dropped out of high school and quickly succumbed to drugs and crime. On Death Row, however, there was no access to drugs, and DeLuna took advantage of the small amenities. He obtained a GED and began taking college classes. Throughout his six-plus years on Death Row, the tone of his letters changed, and it was clear he was changing. It was a metamorphosis of sorts as DeLuna began to look at life with a clearer perspective. I began to see a real person. He wasn’t just this convicted killer, subject of a high-profile news story, but a human being to whom fate hadn’t been kind in so many ways. All the while he continued to profess his innocence. But there were few, if any, who actually believed him. Years later, DeLuna’s own attorney told me that even he didn’t believe DeLuna was innocent. While I was beginning to doubt his guilt, I had no inkling of withheld evidence. And DeLuna refused to talk about his tocayo, or namesake, Carlos Hernandez for fear of jeopardizing his appeal.
The wheels of justice are often laborious. In DeLuna’s case, they were in overdrive. While other Death Row inmates had protracted appeals winding their way through the system, it took just six years for DeLuna’s appeals to exhaust. A death date was set for Dec. 7, 1989. Carlos wrote to ask if I would be a witness at his execution.
How could I possibly watch him die? I said, “Please forgive me, but no.” He asked if he could call me, so I acquiesced, never dreaming the call would come. I expected a stay of execution, but the governor wasn’t buying it. On Dec. 6, 1989, after saying goodbye to his family, DeLuna was allowed one last call. It was to me.
“I’m going to be executed,” he said plainly. “It’s over. They denied my appeals.” The enormity of what was happening gripped me like a vice. I felt paralyzed; what do you say to a man who is about to die? “Oh God,” was all I could manage to get out of my mouth. “I didn’t think it would happen, not so soon. I thought you’d get a stay.” “So did I,” he said. “This is only my second (death) date. There are lots of others who’ve had more and are still waiting here.” I was immediately sick with fear for him. “They said we should have brought up the issues before.” As I was about to ask what “issues,” he quickly moved on. “What time is it there?” I said, “10:50.” “Well, at 1 a.m. your time, that’s when the process begins,” he explained calmly.
Words cannot describe the sense of fear and helplessness racing through my mind. What words of wisdom or comfort could I give to a man who has no hope? Then, it occurred to me – maybe he needs to confess. So I asked him straight out, “Is there anything you want to tell me … to confess, Carlos?” “They are executing an innocent man,” he said quietly. “I am so sorry Carlos, I am so sorry,” I muttered sickly. “It’s OK,” he said. “I’m going to take it, not fight.”
I was so choked up that no words would come. With practically his dying breath he still claimed his innocence. Could everyone have been so wrong?
What do I say? What can I do?
But it was DeLuna who found the words to comfort me instead. “I believe in God and I know he forgives. I will go to heaven. I am at peace and I’m holding no grudges. And I am glad I got to know you in this life.”
There was an interminable pause on both ends, until he finally broke the silence. “It’s time to go.” As the tears ran down my face, I managed to say, “God be with you, Carlos.” “Goodbye, Karen.”
A day after his execution I received a letter from him; the next day, another.
Dec. 4, 1989: Please remember me as a good person … I close for now and if I have to die this way, I’ll never forget you, I do believe in life after death, maybe we’ll meet up there. Take care. Love in a Special Way, Carlos DeLuna.
Fifteen years later, I received another gut-wrenching phone call. It was a law professor at Columbia University who claimed to have uncovered evidence pointing to DeLuna’s innocence. Professor James Liebman and his team were still investigating, but what they had found so far was nothing short of shocking. They discovered never-before-released police tapes calling witness identifications into question and bloody footprints that were never analyzed. They also obtained corroborating statements from people who claimed another person bragged about committing the crime – a man who looked strikingly similar to DeLuna and even shared the same first name – a known violent criminal named Carlos Hernandez. They looked so much alike in some police mug shots that even their families got the two Carloses mixed up when shown the photos.
During the trial, prosecutors argued that the “other” Carlos was a phantom. They claimed they had tried to find him, but he simply didn’t exist. But Hernandez was very real, and was suspected in a string of violent crimes, including the stabbing death of another woman.
After Hernandez died in prison, those who had so feared him were finally willing to talk. Unfortunately, the physical evidence had mysteriously disappeared, making a DNA test impossible. Still, Liebman and his team were confident they had enough to prove their case … unless DeLuna had secretly revealed his guilt to someone.
Liebman and his team learned of my lengthy correspondence with him, and they wanted me to tell them everything. I told them that through all of the interviews and letters, Carlos DeLuna never once wavered from his claims of innocence. Their conclusion: Texas most likely executed an innocent man.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” Some of us wish we could have had that elusive moment of insight some 30 years ago. If there had been one small piece of evidence slipped under my door to shed doubt on the case against DeLuna, maybe then I would have been able to ask the right questions, seek the right answers and right a terrible wrong. But it all came too late.
In spite of that terrible wrong, and all who gave up on him, Carlos DeLuna didn’t give up. He still had hope. At first it was hope in the system. Then, it was hope in God. As DeLuna faced death for a crime he hadn’t committed, he was full of grace and peace. His last words were of forgiveness. He was a changed man. He changed my life forever, too. He once told me that I was one of the only people who was ever kind to him and treated him fairly.
I hold on to that as solace for my guilt for not believing in Carlos DeLuna until it was too late. Somehow, though, I know he forgives me.
The full report, “Los Tocayos Carlos, Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution,” can be found online at TheWrongCarlos.net.
Karen Boudrie Greig is a former reporter and anchor for WVUE-TV (FOX8). She lives in Jefferson Parish where she’s the Owner of Boudrie Communications, a firm specializing in public relations. At the time of the DeLuna trial she was a reporter for a television station in Corpus Christi.
She is working on a book about the case.
Carlos DeLuna, left, and known violent criminal, Carlos Hernandez, right, looked so much alike in some police mug shots that even their families got the two Carloses mixed up when shown the photos.
Cases in Louisiana and Mississippi
Intent on righting the inevitable wrongs of the criminal justice system, the Innocence Project has found such a cadre of questionable convictions in Louisiana and Mississippi (the two states with the highest incarceration rates in the world) that its New Orleans office has become the second-largest in the country.
The Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) has helped free 22 wrongly convicted persons; of those exonerations, almost half involved eyewitness errors, according to Director Emily Maw. “We’re so careless and so cavalier in how we handle eyewitness identification,” explains Maw. IPNO receives hundreds of pleas for help from people imprisoned due to the testimony of a “sole” eyewitness.
IPNO is advocating for a corroboration rule that would require prosecutors to present corroborating evidence in addition to eyewitness testimony in all violent felony cases. Additionally Maw says, “there are other minor measures shown to reduce eyewitness errors,” which are buoyed by decades of studies documenting the need for these reforms.
While a few states like New Jersey have embraced these reforms, most, including Louisiana and Mississippi, have not.