05.16.12

10 Shocking Bits From Book About How Texas Executed an Innocent Man

Police hastily decided on their suspect. The crime scene was mishandled. The condemned man went through agony during his lethal injection. Ben Jacobs on the most gripping bits from ‘Los Tocayos Carlos,’ a new book on Texas’s wrongful execution of Carlos DeLuna.

Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution is a haunting chronicle of how Carlos DeLuna, a poor Hispanic man with a history of petty crime and the intelligence of a child, was wrongfully convicted and then executed for the 1983 murder of Wanda Lopez, a convenience-store clerk in Corpus Christi, Texas.  An entire issue of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review has been dedicated to publishing the tale of how DeLuna was put to death and the real killer, a brutal thug named Carlos Hernandez, continued to roam free. The remarkable thing about the narrative is the utter banality of it in what the authors describe as a “case of the obscure accused of murdering the obscure.” Here are 10 of the most gripping and shocking parts of this tragic story.

Ignored By 911

Wanda Lopez was a divorced single mother and high-school dropout who worked the 3–10 p.m. shift behind the register at the Sigmor Shamrock gas station and convenience store. It was in a rough neighborhood in Corpus Christi, located next to a strip club called Wolfy’s. At 8:09 p.m., she called 911 in a panic. She immediately asked “[C]an you have an officer come to 2602 South Padre Island Drive? I have a suspect with a—a knife inside the store ... He’s a Mexican. He’s standing right here at the counter.” Instead, the 911 operator, Jesse Escochea, who wasn’t supposed to be answering calls and just picked up the phone because everyone else was occupied, quizzed her for 77 seconds because he thought she had “an attitude.” He didn’t dispatch a police car until after Lopez had been fatally stabbed in her chest while asking for help. It later emerged that the reason for her “attitude” was that she had previously called 911 about the same man loitering outside the door and was told to immediately call back if the man entered. If the regular 911 operator had answered, help would have come right away and Wanda Lopez might not have been stabbed.

The Arrest

Eyewitnesses saw two different men running in different directions near the gas station. The only actual witness to the crime saw the stabbing and then watched a man emerge from the gas station who looked like a “transient.” He was unshaven, with a full mustache and wearing a flannel shirt over a hooded sweatshirt. A second witness saw a man loitering by the gas station’s ice machine wearing a white T-shirt. Finally, another pair of witnesses saw a well-dressed, clean-shaven man jogging in the vicinity of the station, headed east at around 8:05. These descriptions all blended into each other. However, when police found Carlos DeLuna lying shirtless and apparently drunk underneath a pickup truck two blocks away, they decided they had their man. After all, DeLuna had a history of petty crime and had not made himself popular with the police as a result. It had to be him.

Flawed ID

The police had all the witnesses still at the crime scene and the suspect two blocks away. Doing a formal lineup seemed to be such a hassle. Instead, it was far easier for the police to just drive the handcuffed suspect two blocks in the back of the squad car and have the traumatized witnesses try to identify him there. Needless to say, all the IDs were positive.

Crime Scene Mishandled

The crime scene was soaked with blood. Lopez had been stabbed in the chest and then bled out. In the course of the robbery, she had struggled with her assailant who had left fingerprints and footprints on surfaces through the store. However, the police did not thoroughly examine the scene. Instead, they allowed store employees to clean it up so that it was ready to reopen at 6 a.m. the next day. The result was that little usable evidence was recovered from the crime scene.

Background of Carlos DeLuna

Carlos DeLuna, who was arrested for the crime, was developmentally disabled and had a low IQ. He dropped out of junior high and took a series of manual jobs. He had a history of petty nonviolent crime, including robbery and car theft. DeLuna also developed a taste for huffing spray paint. He was arrested multiple times holding a can of spray paint with his hands and mouth “smeared with the stuff.”

Carlos Hernandez

In contrast, Carlos Hernandez, the man believed to have actually murdered Lopez, had a history of violent behavior. Hernandez was believed to have murdered at least one other woman and had a history of domestic violence, armed robbery, and drug dealing. He also molested and raped multiple children, and grew up in a twisted household with a prostitute mother who openly put life insurance policies on all six of her children, and gleefully collected on four of those policies.

Incompetent Lawyering

DeLuna was facing the death penalty and couldn’t afford a lawyer. Typically, judges assigned the best lawyers available to represent defendants in a case for capital murder. It was the toughest legal task available and considered an honor to take on in the South Texas legal community. However, it also was very lucrative. As a result, Hector DePena, a small-time general practitioner who had never tried a major case before a jury, represented DeLuna. He also was broke and had a politically well-connected father. DeLuna never had a chance.

Finding Carlos Hernandez

DeLuna repeatedly insisted that Carlos Hernandez was the real killer. Hernandez was well-known in their rough Corpus Christi neighborhood as an unsavory character. However, prosecutors dismissed the possibility that Hernandez was actually the culprit and only made a cursory investigation. This was despite the fact as Hernandez’s own lawyer said, “If someone said, ‘knife’ and ‘Carlos Hernandez,’ they’d know exactly what you were saying. If you were an active detective. If you were experienced in patrol in ... the Mary Street area, you’d know who Carlos was. I mean, come on! They all knew.”

A small-time general practitioner who had never tried a major case before a jury represented DeLuna. DeLuna never had a chance.

DeLuna’s Death

DeLuna’s case took only six years from conviction to execution, a sprinter’s pace by the standards of an average death-penalty case.  The night of his execution, DeLuna was strapped to a gurney in the execution chamber. The prison chaplain was holding on to his leg to provide comfort (because of the nature of lethal injection, the chaplain couldn’t hold his hand). The two had prayed together before entering the death chamber and the chaplain promised DeLuna that it wouldn’t hurt. He was wrong.

The first drug, which was supposed to put DeLuna to sleep, didn’t work. Instead, the wrongfully convicted prisoner was fully conscious when the second drug paralyzed him and kept him from breathing and he felt the burning pain when the third drug, which was simple poison, was injected. The result left the chaplain unable to sleep for nights. He later said, “That’s when I started thinking, we are killing innocent people. We are killing children. We are killing [the] mentally retarded.”

Hernandez’s Death

Carlos Hernandez died 10 years later in prison of complications from cirrhosis. In the meantime, he had attacked a girlfriend at her house. He stabbed her in the stomach and dragged her into the backyard to rape her and then kill her before the girlfriend’s sons chased him off. He also was arrested for threatening neighbors and dealing heroin. When he died, his mother thought so little of him that she pocketed the money that the state provided for burial expenses and let her son be buried in a potter’s field.