THE BLOG

Does America Execute the Innocent? You Decide

07/18/2014 07:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2014
AP

Every day now, myths about the death penalty explode.

Glenn Ford's exoneration in March, after 30 years on Louisiana's death row, gave the lie to two urban legends: There are no innocent people on death row, and if a death-row prisoner were innocent, we would set him free right away and compensate him generously for his lost years.

In April, Oklahoma's gruesomely induced heart attack on a sentient and terrified Clayton Lockett did in another myth: When we execute bad guys, it's quick and painless.

Then there's the whopper that the Supreme Court exposed in May: The nation no longer executes mentally disabled inmates. Florida, it turns out, continues to do exactly that.

A June Washington Post/ABC News poll brought down another shibboleth: The public supports the death penalty. In fact, a majority prefer life without parole to executions.

Still, one seemingly soothing claim about the death penalty persists. Yes, some capital-defense lawyers are obviously incompetent, and their clients are seriously mentally challenged. Yes, prosecutors sometimes hide evidence of innocence. Yes, some defendants are put on death row by erroneous eyewitness identifications. And, yes, every so often, a death-row inmate turns out to be innocent. But, because of painstaking appeals and clemency reviews, no innocent person is ever executed.

A few years ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia proclaimed this assurance "from the rooftops," and it still stands today.

But before accepting Scalia's guarantee, consider Carlos DeLuna, the subject of The Wrong Carlos, a book colleagues and I recently published following an exhaustive investigation of his criminal case and subsequent execution.

Texas sentenced Carlos DeLuna to die for the murder of a convenience-store clerk in 1983. DeLuna's attorney had never before tried a felony case, and he got no help from DeLuna, who was too mentally disabled to have made it through the eighth grade.

The key evidence against DeLuna was an identification by an Anglo eyewitness who later said he couldn't tell one Hispanic person from another. The witness admitted he was only 50-percent sure when police brought him face-to-face with DeLuna in a dark parking lot at night, but, terrified, he ID'd DeLuna as the killer anyway.

DeLuna testified that he had seen another Carlos -- Carlos Hernandez -- wrestling with the victim moments before she died. But DeLuna was violating parole for an earlier crime, so he ran away when he heard police sirens, only to be swept up in the manhunt that followed. Prosecutors told the jury that they looked high and low for Carlos Hernandez and determined that DeLuna had invented him. As DeLuna's case raced through the appellate and clemency process, state attorneys also assured the judge and governor that Carlos Hernandez didn't exist.

But he did exist. As the homicide detective and a prosecutor in DeLuna's case knew, Hernandez had already knifed one woman to death, and he later confessed to doing the same to another woman, though he never was convicted of either crime. Only months before DeLuna was executed, Hernandez came within an inch of killing a neighbor with a knife.

All these victims -- including the convenience-store clerk Carlos DeLuna was executed for killing -- were poor, young, Hispanic women whom Hernandez had romantically pursued.

Immediately after the clerk's murder, and for years afterwards, Hernandez told family and friends that he had killed her and let his "tocayo" -- his twin -- "take the rap." The two Carloses were the same height and weight. Relatives described them as dead "ringers" for each other and repeatedly mistook pictures of one for the other.

With Carlos Hernandez still prowling the streets of Corpus Christi, Carlos DeLuna was executed on Dec. 7, 1989. Several minutes into his "lethal injection" -- long after he was supposed to be unconscious and unfeeling, and as a painful, heart-attack-inducing drug began flowing into his veins -- DeLuna sat up. Just as Clayton Lockett did in April, DeLuna fearfully looked an attending witness in the eye.

Informed of the Columbia investigation, the district attorney in DeLuna's case wrote in the Houston Chronicle that he had come "face to face with the hard truth" that he had been "involved in the execution of a man who may well have been innocent."

No innocent person is ever executed. Don't take my word for whether this last remaining assurance about the death penalty is the biggest lie of all. Our book about DeLuna just presents the facts. Every claim made is supported by primary sources linked on our website, where you can read them for yourself.

You decide.