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James Liebman: The TT Interview

The Columbia University law professor on the in-depth investigation his team conducted that they believe revealed that Carlos DeLuna did not commit the murder for which he was executed in 1989.

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Carlos DeLuna always said that it was another man named Carlos who committed the fatal stabbing for which he was convicted and then executed in 1989. No one believed him. The prosecutors said Carlos Hernandez, the man who he claimed was the real perpetrator, didn't exist.

Now, more than two decades after DeLuna's execution, Columbia University law school professor James Liebman and a team of students have uncovered evidence they say proves that Carlos DeLuna was innocent, and that Carlos Hernandez not only was real but was probably the real killer. They released their findings in a book-length monograph and website published by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review on Tuesday.

"I'm convinced that no jury could possibly have convicted Carlos DeLuna beyond a reasonable doubt on the evidence here. That's absolutely clear," Liebman said in a videotaped interview with the Tribune from Columbia University in New York. Liebman discussed the lengthy in-depth investigation that the team conducted, which he said revealed that Hernandez had a long history of violent crimes, that police worked too fast, that important leads were never followed and that, in the end, even DeLuna's execution may have been botched. "Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong," he said.

The lead prosecutor in DeLuna's case, Steve Schiwetz, told the Houston Chronicle that he disputed the report's findings. And, he said its authors were "crusaders." Hernandez, he told the Chronicle, usually targeted women he knew, not strangers. He also said that DeLuna lied about his whereabouts the night of the murder.

DeLuna was convicted of the 1983 stabbing death of Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi gas station. He became the chief suspect less than an hour after the crime, when police found him cowering underneath a pickup about a mile away. A witness from the crime scene identified DeLuna in the dark of night as a flashlight shined on his face behind the window of a police cruiser. 

In their investigation, Liebman and his team learned that Hernandez had bragged repeatedly about killing Lopez and another woman and that he had a long history of violent crimes, including stabbings with a knife that was similar to the one found at the gas station. Hernandez died in prison in 1999.

A 2006 investigation by reporters at The Chicago Tribune — spurred by a Columbia University law professor — reached a similar conclusion. "The newspaper investigation, involving interviews with dozens of people and a review of thousands of pages of court records, shows the case was compromised by shaky eyewitness identification, sloppy police work and a failure to thoroughly pursue Hernandez as a possible suspect," the newspaper reported. "His case represents one of the most compelling examples yet of the discovery of possible innocence after a prisoner's execution."

Carlos DeLuna protested his innocence until his death. At his execution, the Rev. Carroll Pickett, the death house chaplain, said DeLuna asked if he could call him Daddy and held the pastor's hand as long as he could.

"I fully believe that Carlos DeLuna was an innocent man, and I will always believe that," Pickett said.

Below is an edited video of the interview with Liebman, along with footage and photos that his team collected during the investigation.

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