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May 16th, 2012
12:34 PM ET

Wrong man executed: Columbia Law School challenges 23-year-old Texas verdict

It would appear from a recent Columbia Law study that America has executed an innocent man.

In 1983, 24-year-old Wanda Lopez was a gas station worker on a solo night shift. Warned of suspicious activity outside the store, Lopez was already speaking with a 911 operator when a customer drew his knife and demanded cash. On the emergency call tape, the gruesome story plays out: Lopez tries to cooperate. The sounds of a struggle come across the line, and then the phone goes dead.

Carlos DeLuna was identified by a lone eyewitness as the killer. Though his approximate physical appearance matched the witness recollection, DeLuna had no blood on his clothes and no trace of his presence at the scene of the crime. From initial arrest to execution, his trial took six years. DeLuna received a lethal injection in 1989.

The state already holds the record for capital punishment: Texas has executed 482 people since 1982, a statistic that is four times that of any other state.

Columbia Law School professor James Liebman and a team of 12 students devoted six years to scouring the case, and yesterday published their findings in Columbia University's Columbia Human Rights Law Review. The 400-page report details the story of the Corpus Christi night and two men, both named Carlos - one who was convicted of a crime that the other bragged of completing.

Liebman describes the process of the investigation to today's panel.

"We started looking at some Texas cases that put people on death row and got them executed based on a single eyewitness identification. One of the very first cases we came to was Carlos DeLuna, who from the very beginning said, 'I didn't do it, Carlos Hernandez did.'

"Nobody had ever identified this Carlos Hernandez," he explains. "We said, let's give it a day and see if we can find him."

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