Brooks: Shouting from the Rooftops
By David Brooks, Staff Columnist
Published on Thursday, May 24, 2012
In 2006, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a concurring opinion on the death penalty case Kansas v. Marsh that there has not been “a single case — not one — in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit. 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.”
In a recently published exhaustive, book-length study, however, Columbia Law School professor James Liebman and a team of his students make a strong case for the innocence of Carlos DeLuna, a man who was executed in Texas by lethal injection after being convicted of murdering a woman named Wanda Lopez in 1983. In light of this report, the time has come to not only shout from rooftops, but also to abolish the death penalty itself.
When the police found DeLuna hiding under a truck a few blocks from where Lopez was stabbed to death, he immediately insisted that he could help them find the killer. However, the police ignored his pleas, drove him to where the murder took place, walked two witnesses of the murder to the squad car and shone a flashlight on DeLuna’s face. The two witnesses affirmed that DeLuna was the killer.
Apart from the incriminating, unorthodox identification measures, there were other problems with the witness testimony. One of the witnesses said she had only seen someone running in the area. The other witness, who saw the actual murder, described a Hispanic male with a moustache. DeLuna didn’t have a moustache. The killer was also described as wearing a gray sweatshirt, but DeLuna was wearing a white dress shirt. During the pre-trial hearing, the second witness was unable to identify DeLuna in the courtroom. The witness to the murder later expressed doubts as to DeLuna’s identity. However, the witness testimony would be the linchpin in securing DeLuna’s conviction.
Lopez and the attacker were alone in the store during the crime, and a shoe print not belonging to Lopez was found at the crime scene. No blood was found on DeLuna’s shoes or any of his clothing, a fact that strains credulity given that the attacker had violently struggled with Lopez.
No samples of blood were taken from the convenience store. Store workers were allowed to clean the site in order to reopen the next morning. DeLuna claimed that he ran from police because he had been intoxicated, which would have violated his parole. After five months, and overcoming his fear of retribution, DeLuna told authorities that the actual killer was Carlos Hernandez, an adolescent acquaintance with whom he had been drinking. At the trial, the lead prosecutor claimed that Hernandez didn’t exist. However, that claim was false. Hernandez did exist and was known among authorities knew for his violent past and his penchant for using knives.
The full Columbia study casts even more doubt on the DeLuna case, although some may still maintain DeLuna’s guilt. However, the death penalty tightly seals a case, forever stamping its permanence. Further chances of exonerating the accused are lost. Not only are the friends and family of the accused robbed of a loved one, but the victim’s family is deprived of justice.
Since 1973, 140 people have been released from death row based on evidence of their innocence. Since 1989, 17 individuals on death row have been exonerated through DNA testing. The DeLuna case and other high-profile executions including Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia in 2011, and Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004, have drawn attention to the fact that we may be sentencing innocent people to death.
There are two oft-cited reasons for keeping the death penalty. The first is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent. However, this point is highly disputed. No country that has abolished the death penalty has reported higher rates of murder. Furthermore, the majority of murders are not premeditated, mitigating the deterrence factor.
The second reason given is that the families deserve justice and the killers deserve death. While I can understand this sentiment, what justice is there in sending the wrong person to death? Proponents of the death penalty have to confront the fact that keeping the death penalty results in innocent people being killed. The purported benefits of the death penalty are not worth even one innocent person’s life.