Yes, it has come to this: Credible claims of innocence in multiple cases of men executed years ago. It’s becoming a disgrace for the state. What else can we say after the recent disturbing revelations in the case of Carlos DeLuna?
DeLuna was convicted of stabbing to death 24-year-old Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi convenience store in 1983. His conviction was based largely on the shaky testimony of a single eyewitness. Police had the eyewitness identify DeLuna at the crime scene while DeLuna was in custody—not ideal policing practice to say the least. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Yet the state executed DeLuna in 1989. Now it appears they had the wrong man.
In 2003, Columbia University law professor James Liebman and a group of students began an eight-year reinvestigation of DeLuna’s case. Their results were recently published in a book-length Columbia Human Rights Law Review article.
Texans have sadly grown accustomed to the horrifying tales of wrongful conviction after more than two dozen DNA exonerations in Dallas County and the high-profile cases of Anthony Graves and Michael Morton. But the DeLuna case is one of the most dispiriting yet. Though the details are different, what happened to DeLuna is eerily similar to the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case and to the Claude Jones case. (If you’re not familiar with the Jones story, which the Observer broke in November 2010, then read this story. DNA tests debunked the key evidence against Jones, who was executed in 2000, though the tests didn’t conclusively establish his actual innocence.) Then there’s the case of Ruben Cantu, a former special ed student executed in 1993 for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit.
"Carlos DeLuna, Cameron Willingham and Rethinking the Criminal Justice System," is Dan Simon's Huffington Post essay. He's Professor of Law and Psychology at USC's Gould School of Law. Here's the beginning:
Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham probably did not commit the crimes for which they were put to death by the state of Texas. In-depth inquiries into their convictions revealed bungled investigations, poor recordkeeping, mistaken eyewitness testimony, spurious forensic testimony and misconduct by law enforcement personnel, among other problems.
Sadly, the DeLuna and Willingham convictions are hardly isolated incidents. The National Registry of Exonerations, which launched this month, lists 890 men and women who were wrongfully convicted for serious crimes and spent, on average, more than 11 years in prison before being found factually innocent. That's not the complete story. The registry does not include an additional 1,170 people who were exonerated following large-scale police scandals. The actual number of false convictions is probably far greater.
At bottom, the primary cause for false convictions is the questionable quality of the evidence habitually used in criminal prosecutions. Poor evidence can be produced even when all actors follow procedures diligently and conscientiously. The problems lie with the investigative procedures themselves. Lineups, witness interviews, and suspect interrogations rely on crude and archaic investigative methods that are both insensitive to the prospect of human error and prone to exacerbate mistakes. As a result, the evidence elicited contains an unknown mix of accurate and inaccurate evidence.
Mystifyingly, criminal investigators are not required to make a reliable record of the evidence they collect. Verdicts are thus often based on faded memories, paraphrased statements, incomplete narratives and swearing contests about what transpired in the interrogation room. Hints of error are obscured from police supervisors and prosecutors, and they are concealed from lawyers, judges and juries. The lack of a reliable record opens the door to testimony creep -- as the trial date approaches, gaps in testimony get filled, narratives congeal, and reluctant witnesses become more confident.
The Catholic Sentinel posts, "Another innocent killed?"
America is one of the few remaining countries that allows its states to use the death penalty. For a state to kill people to demonstrate that killing people is wrong is crazy.
The Vatican and the U.S. bishops have spoken out against the death penalty.
Archbishop John Vlazny has called for an end to the death penalty in this newspaper.
“Human life is a gift from God, sacred from conception to natural death ,” he wrote last year.
In his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict asserted that “society lacks foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially when it is weak or marginalized.”
Even as a deterrent to crime, the death penalty is not reliable. States with more executions do not generally have lower murder or crime rates.
The Story, an American Public Media radio broadcast, features an interview with Columbia Law prof James Liebman in, "Investigating an Execution." It's conducted by Dick Gordon. Audio is at the link.
Earlier coverage of Carlos DeLuna and the Columbia HRLR article begins at the link; also available, extensive coverage of the National Registry of Exonerations. You can read the full article at The Wrong Carlos.