Los Tocayos Carlos: how Texas executed an innocent man

Carlos DeLuna at left; Carlos Hernandez at right

For a long time, it’s been an article of faith among death penalty opponents that a conclusive case proving that “the wrong man” was executed would blow the lid of the death penalty debate. Many felt the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, executed by Texas in 2004 after a conviction based largely on shoddy forensic evidence, would be that case. Still, as convincing as the accretion of facts in the Willingham case is in supporting a finding of wrongful execution, it hasn’t been the slam dunk death penalty opponents have been hoping for.

The case of Carlos DeLuna could be that slam dunk. 

The centerpiece of Los Tocayos Carlos, a multimedia website launched by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, is a book-length investigation of DeLuna’s arrest, conviction and execution for the 1983 stabbing death of Wanda Lopez in Corpus Christi, TX. 

The headline on the Los Tocayos Carlos site is, “Did Texas execute an innocent man?” Spoiler alert: the answer is yes. 

I stayed up until 3am reading the book. It is devastating, not least for its brutal portrayal of two family’s lives in the Corpus Christi barrios. There are no winners in this story, only losers. 

Carlos DeLuna was a dull-witted ne’er-do-well 20-year-old dropout. He’d been arrested dozens of times and had popped off to the Corpus Christi PD enough on those occasions that there was no love lost for him. Still, of the many times he’d been arrested, he was never found to be carrying a weapon. That held true on the night of the murder, when he was found cowering under a pickup truck not too far from the blood spattered crime scene. And the white dress shirt he had shed while running from police was spotless. 

Carlos Hernandez was a charismatic psychopath who, before and after Lopez’s murder, bragged about cutting and killing women. He was arrested over a dozen times with a folding lock-blade buck knife in his possession. Everyone who knew him knew about his knife. He all but fetishized it. Shown a photo of the knife found at the murder scene but not told where or when it was found, numerous acquaintances and family members said, “Oh, that’s Carlos’s knife.” 

And there’s more. So much more.

One Carlos was arrested, tried, convicted and executed for Wanda Lopez’s murder. The other Carlos gloated early and often that his tocayo—his doppelganger—had taken the fall for him. At every step of the way, the criminal justice system failed, often willfully.  

I truly believe there are some people who are so evil that they don’t deserve to live. I also believe that we as human beings do not have the capacity to determine infallibly who those people are, and so capital punishment is wrong, and must be ended. If you agree with the first sentence, but not the second, I urge you to read Los Tocayos Carlos