Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and a team of students have uncovered evidence that DeLuna, whom they describe as "a poor Hispanic man with childlike intelligence who was executed in Texas in 1989," was innocent, and that his sentencing to death row was a case of mistaken identity.
Their findings, published online and in book format by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, call into question Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's claim that America has never sentenced an innocent person to capital punishment, the Atlantic reported.
"It should be noted at the outset that the dissent does not discuss a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit," Scalia wrote in his concurrence over the 2006 case Kansas v. Marsh, during which the Court's five conservatives upheld a portion of Kansas' capital punishment law. "If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent's name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby."
The Columbia investigation, however, is shouting DeLuna's name. Starting in 2004, they interviewed more than 100 witnesses and went through 900 pieces of source material and crime scene photographs, according to the Guardian.
They unearthed an overlap between two men named Carlos — Carlos DeLuna, who was executed, and Carlos Hernandez, who reportedly actually committed the murder of Wanda Lopez, a single mother who worked a night shift at a gas station in crime-ridden Corpus Christi, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Carlos DeLuna and Carlos Hernandez looked so similar they were often confused as twins, and also shared a history of substance abuse and violence against women. But the prosecution argued that they searched for Hernandez without success and claimed that DeLuna had made him up, Slate reported.
However, Lieberman and his team of researchers were able to track down Hernandez easily, and learned that he had confessed to murdering Lopez on multiple occasions. They also found that forensic teams had failed to take the most basic measures in investigating the crime scene.
DeLuna's death row sentence was also based almost entirely on one man's eyewitness account, and he admitted in an interview 20 years after the crime that he isn't positive about who he saw fleeing the scene, according to the Guardian.
"This case changed my whole view," Liebman told the Houston Chronicle. "I had thought the problem cases were ones where you have an out-of-town defendant, a scary person who commits a really bad crime that grabs the whole community. ... Now, I think the worst cases are those that likely happen every day in which no one cares that much about the defendant or the victim."