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Carlos DE LUNA





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 4, 1983
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: March 15, 1962
Victim profile: Wanda Jean Lopez, 24 (service station clerk)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Nueces County, Texas, USA
Status: Executed by lethal injection in Texas on December 7, 1989


Date of Execution:
December 7, 1989
Carlos DeLuna #744
Last Statement:
I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the faith and donít give up.

Carlos De Luna

On December 7, 1989, Texas executed 27-year old Carlos De Luna. Sixteen years later, the Chicago Tribune published a three-part investigative series implicating another man and discrediting the evidence against De Luna.

In February 1983, Wanda Lopez was stabbed to death during the night shift at a gas station convenience store where she was clerk. Lopez did not have to die. If police had responded to the first of her two 911 calls, she would be alive today, as would De Luna. Instead, police waited to respond until the end of Lopez's second call, after a series of yes or no questions with a dispatcher revealed that a Hispanic male was in the store with a knife and after Lopez screams revealed she had been stabbed. The officers' delay in reaching the scene may explain their haste to complete the investigation, compounding the tragedy by convicting and executing the wrong man.

After a brief manhunt, police found De Luna hiding underneath a pick-up truck. Recently released from prison, De Luna had been violating parole by drinking in public. Police reports say he was staggering and intoxicated. School reports show he was developmentally impaired.

De Luna immediately told police he was innocent and offered to name a man he had seen inside the gas station. Police ignored De Luna. Also ignored was the fact that he didn't have a drop of blood on his body or clothing, even though the knife victim and killer had physically struggled, drenching the crime scene in blood. De Luna was arrested too soon after the crime to have cleaned himself up.

Back at the gas station, police brought Kevan Baker, their single eyewitness to the crime, to the squad car where De Luna was shirtless and handcuffed in the back seat. After police indicated to Baker that De Luna was the killer, he identified De Luna. Baker told the Tribune he was never sure De Luna was the man he had seen and would have been less sure if police had not hinted they had the right man. Baker originally told police the killer wore a moustache, was dressed like a derelict, and ran northwest behind the gas station. Witnesses placed De Luna east of the gas station. He had no moustache and was dressed in a white button-down dress shirt and dress pants.

From the moment De Luna was arrested until the night he was executed, he insisted he hid under the truck because he was on parole and got scared when he heard sirens coming. He told the officer who arrested him that he was not guilty but knew who was. At trial De Luna named Carlos Hernandez as the man he saw inside the gas station, across the street from the bar where De Luna had been drinking. As the Tribune investigation revealed, Carlos Hernandez was a well-known Corpus Christi criminal and armed felon. He habitually wore a moustache, dressed like a "hobo" and carried a buck knife like the one found at the Lopez crime scene.

Police ignored De Luna's statements. Moments after Baker identified De Luna, police ended their investigation and turned the crime scene over to a stunned store manager who couldn't believe he was allowed to wash down the store so soon after a major crime. Police photographs of the scene reveal (1) a shoe heel print framed in blood (the victim was barefoot when she was killed; De Luna's shoes had no blood on them); (2) a partially smoked cigarette butt near the location of the stabbing (the assailant brought a Winston cigarette pack to the counter before attacking the victim; Winston was Hernandez's brand); (3) a dark red button (Baker told police the killer was wearing a red flannel shirt; according to friends, Hernandez's "winter uniform" was a red flannel shirt); and (4) the murder weapon, an 8-inch buck knife smeared with blood.

Except for the knife, police seized none of these items. Their photographs show the lead investigator trampling on bloody evidence that was never seized. Only four fingerprints were lifted from the scene, none from the knife, and none matched De Luna. A well-known former Corpus Christi police detective, Eddie Garza, told the Tribune the police investigation was incompetent.

At trial, the prosecution argued that De Luna had stabbed Wanda Lopez during the commission of a robbery. The Tribune's investigation revealed, however, that no money had been taken from the scene. Baker told the police the victim's struggle with the assailant looked like a lover's quarrel. Hernandez's neighbors say he knew Lopez and was romantically interested in her. There is no indication De Luna knew Lopez. The supposed robbery was the only factor elevating the murder to a death-eligible crime.

Absent blood, fingerprints, or other physical links to the crime, prosecutors rested their case against De Luna on three things. First was the 911 audio tape of the brutal killing. The tape incensed the jury but gave no hint of who killed Lopez except that it was a Hispanic male. Second was Kevan Baker's night-time identification of De Luna. Baker was prompted by police and shown only a single suspect, not the line-up that standard procedure required. Mug shots reveal that De Luna and Hernandez look strikingly similar. Both were 5'8" tall, 160 pounds, with wavy black hair. Shown pictures of the two men, relatives of both repeatedly mistook one for the other. The only difference was in the two Carloses' m.o. De Luna had many arrests but was never found to have possessed or used a weapon. Hernandez committed most of his crimes with a large knife.

Third, prosecutors said De Luna was a liar. De Luna identified "Carlos Hernandez" as the killer, but - argued the lead prosecutor - Hernandez was "a phantom." In fact, the untruth was the state's. Hernandez was known and notorious to police and prosecutors. Just two months after Lopez was killed, police arrested Hernandez behind a 7-11 Store at night, a knife in his pocket. Around the same time, police informants told Detective Garza that Hernandez had told them he killed Wanda Lopez. When given this information, the lead detective on the Lopez case ignored it. Still worse, one of the prosecutors at De Luna's trial admitted that he knew Hernandez personally. Only three years earlier, he had interviewed Hernandez on suspicion of knifing a young Hispanic woman to death. When arrested for that crime, Hernandez was carrying a buck knife.

Just as police steered Kevan Baker to identify De Luna, the prosecutor's claim that Hernandez was a phantom prompted the jury to convict DeLuna and sentence him to die. De Luna's attorneys also were misled. Although De Luna's family never wavered in their belief that their Carlos could not have killed Wanda Lopez, the lawyers they hired to help him never went to the courthouse to look up Carlos Hernandez's lengthy record of violent convictions and never otherwise investigated his crime. It was not until a decade and a half after De Luna was executed that the Tribune found five people, including Hernandez's own niece, who heard Hernandez confess to stabbing and killing Lopez. Hernandez repeatedly laughed about his "stupid tocayo" who went to jail for Hernandez's crime. "Tocayo" is the Spanish word for "namesake." All five kept this information to themselves, fearing Hernandez's wrath. Some assumed they would be questioned but never were.

In 1999, ten years after De Luna was executed, Hernandez died in prison of liver cirrhosis. During that decade, Hernandez stabbed another young Hispanic woman nearly to death and accumulated five additional arrests, the last of which, an assault with a knife, landed him in prison for the last time.

When confronted with the evidence of Hernandez's guilt and De Luna's innocence, the De Luna prosecutors admitted they should not have told the jury Hernandez was a phantom. Still, they offered no apologies for their actions. No one has apologized to Carlos De Luna or his family for wrongly taking his life. Nor has anyone apologized to Lopez's family for botching that investigation or to Hernandez's subsequent victims, who would have been safe if police and prosecutors had properly investigated the Lopez murder. And what about the jurors who were led to believe that De Luna was guilty? They too deserve an apology.


Death in Texas

June 27, 2006

The Chicago Tribune concludes a series on Tuesday that raises new questions about whether we can have such certainty. The series lays out the possibility that Texas executed an innocent man 17 years ago.

In 1983, a convenience store clerk named Wanda Lopez was stabbed to death. Crime scene photos show blood splattered on the walls of the store, the cash register and the floor.

A man named Carlos De Luna was arrested 40 minutes after the murder. De Luna certainly acted suspiciously. He was found hiding under a vehicle. He had taken off his shirt and shoes. And he was not a choirboy, judging from his criminal record.

But he had not a drop of blood on his face or pants. And when his shirt and shoes were found, no blood was found on them either.

A witness who had passed the killer in the Corpus Christi gas station store told police the suspect wore a gray or a flannel shirt. De Luna's shirt, the one that was found, was white. Later, that witness said he wasn't sure De Luna was the right person.

De Luna said Wanda Lopez was killed by a man he knew named Carlos Hernandez. But prosecutors at trial dismissed Hernandez as a "phantom." He existed, though, and he was well-known for using knives in violent acts. The co-prosecutor in the case ignored his duty to reveal that information to the defense.

De Luna was convicted, largely on the testimony of two witnesses. But De Luna and Hernandez look remarkably similar, and no forensic evidence linked De Luna to the crime.

De Luna was executed in 1989. Hernandez died seven years ago.

Now, the Tribune reports, half a dozen friends and relatives of Hernandez said he bragged to them that he had killed Wanda Lopez. He bragged that another man had been put to death for his crime. He bragged that he had gotten away with murder.

That doesn't prove that Hernandez killed her. It doesn't prove that De Luna didn't. But it certainly raises enough doubt to wonder if Texas did, in fact, execute an innocent man.

The evaluation of evidence over the last two decades, particularly the rise of DNA technology, has given more certainty to many prosecutions--just as it has proved that in some cases innocent people have been sentenced to death. Illinois was home to several of those stunning cases--and it has led the way in efforts to improve its procedures in capital cases. It has imposed a moratorium on the death penalty to buy time to assess those practices.

Still, criminal justice relies on human judgment and integrity. A prosecutor in the De Luna case told a local TV news station that he was reasonably confident they had the right guy.

Reasonably confident? That can't be enough.



Carlos de Luna



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