It’s cases like this that make my support of the death penalty waver:
Carlos DeLuna was executed in 1989 for stabbing to death a gas station clerk in Corpus Christi six years earlier. It was a ghastly crime. The trial attracted local attention, but not from concern that a guiltless man would be punished while the killer went free.
DeLuna, an eighth grade dropout, maintained that he was innocent from the moment cops put him in the back seat of a patrol car until the day he died. Today, 29 years after DeLuna was arrested, Liebman and his team published a mammoth report in the Human Rights Law Review that concludes DeLuna paid with his life for a crime he likely did not commit. Shoddy police work, the prosecution’s failure to pursue another suspect, and a weak defense combined to send DeLuna to death row, they argued.
Please read the whole thing. It’s frightening. The police and prosecutors thought they had an airtight case. This wasn’t really a close call on whether to convict him or not. They had witnesses, motive, his presence in the area and a violent criminal history. But the new investigation turned everything over. The evidence actually pointed to another Carlos — Carlos Hernandez — another violent felon so similar in appearance to DeLuna that they were often mistaken for each other.
Now there are a few points to make. As Ted Frank pointed out on Twitter, without the death penalty, DeLuna would probably still be in prison and no one would know of his innocence (although I think that’s cold comfort to him). This was not a case of prosecutorial misconduct. And the accumulation of circumstance was so unique and rare that you’d think it was an episode of Law and Order. The number of death row inmates who are there because an airtight case convicted them of a crime their doppleganger committed has got to pretty close to zero.
But the larger point is at the heart of why, as a conservative, I am finding myself increasingly worried about the death penalty. We do not have a system that is anywhere close to perfect. Shoddy police work, confused eye witnesses, unmotivated inexperienced defense attorneys … this is not unusual in death penalty cases. And that’s without prosecutorial misconduct or mistaken witnesses.