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“I didn’t do it, but I know who did.” The wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna

2012 May 16
by Paul Vallely

I think I may have got something terribly wrong.  A team from Columbia University law school has just published 436 pages of evidence which clearly indicates that the state of Texas sent an innocent man to the execution chamber in 1989. The unprecedented study takes up the entirety of the latest issue of the school’s Human Rights Law Review. When I saw the dead man’s photograph my mind flashed back more than two decades to when I interviewed him Death Row in Texas.

He was called Carlos DeLuna. I had visited the death chamber in Huntsville and he was the next man due in there. He was just 24. He had been convicted of stabbing to death a petrol station attendant in a place called, bizarrely enough, Corpus Christi. There were two pieces of evidence against him. The police had caught him hiding under a truck nearby, with no shirt or shoes on. And an eye witness had identified him. He was a glue-sniffer and petty criminal.

Throughout he protested his innocence. He did so, at length, to me. But though I wrote down everything he said I was not listening with full attention. “The reason I agreed to talk to you was so people can see that I have feelings too, that I’m not an animal,” he said. “This is a human being speaking. Is it right to do this?”

Yet throughout, as I looked through the thick plastic window on Death Row into the eyes of a man condemned to die, I was seized with the compulsion – of some reason – that I had to decide whether or not he was telling the truth.

Then all at once I was overcome with the certainty he was guilty. And yet, at the same time, I was swamped with the  feeling that his guilt was utterly irrelevant to the morality of what was about to be done to him.

He was executed two years later. But in 2006 an investigation by the Chicago Tribune showed, fairly convincingly, that the state had probably executed an innocent man.

There had never been any forensic evidence against him. There was no speck of blood on his face or pants, nor on his shirt and shoes when they were found. He had blamed the crime on someone called Carlos Hernandez, whom the prosecutors told the jury was a “phantom”; but the Tribune not only found Hernandez, they found he had told half a dozen friends and relatives that he had done the murder and bragged that someone else had taken the wrap. DeLuna and Hernandez looked so remarkably similar, that the pivotal eye-witness said he was no longer sure when he saw their photographs. Hernandez had died a decade later.

Something went wrong with the lethal injection when De Luna was put to death. He didn’t die within 12 seconds, as the death chamber chaplain recounts he had promised. Rather he struggled against the straps on the death table as if trying to sit upright. He seemed to try to speak. No-one knew whether it was excruciating pain, with the killer drug working before the anaesthetic in the lethal cocktail. Or whether he was trying to protest his innocence one last time of the precipice of death.

Two decades on I felt complicit. Of course, I had played no part in any of this. And the article I had written exposed the cold barbarity of the state’s calculated decision to kill. But I had decided I had to decide whether or not he was guilty. And then I had made the wrong choice.

After the Chicago Tribune investigation one of DeLuna’s prosecutors told a local TV news station that he was “reasonably confident” they had got the right guy. Reasonably confident. That is what I too had been. No decisions turned on my confidence, but terrible consequences ensued from the confidence of the prosecutors, the eye-witness, the jury and the politicians of Texas who refused to commute the sentence. What they had all been was unreasonably confident. Had they been less so Carlos DeLuna might be alive today.


Adapted from a Church Times column published in June 2010

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