Legislative sponsors of a law tightening procedures for police lineups on Tuesday faulted Corpus Christi police for allowing eyewitnesses in a 1983 convenience store robbery-murder to identify the suspect as he sat handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car.
State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, stopped short of claiming Texas wrongfully executed suspect Carlos DeLuna for the February 1983 murder of store clerk Wanda Lopez.
Gallego, however, said the way Corpus Christi police handled the suspect’s identification was a “textbook example” of why the system needs to be reformed.
“What appears to be very faulty eyewitness identification was the main evidence used to reach a conviction in this case,” Ellis said in an email.
“… The chief witness appears to have gone back and forth on how certain he was that Mr. DeLuna was the culprit. You cannot have this level of uncertainty in death penalty cases.”
Accounts of the crime, the investigation and DeLuna’s prosecution were presented in a 400-page article published Tuesday in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. Columbia University Law School authors argue that the crime actually was committed by Carlos Hernandez, a DeLuna acquaintance with a history of convenience store robberies. Hernandez, the article says, boasted of killing the store clerk
DeLuna was executed by injection in 1989. Hernandez died in prison, convicted of a knife attack on a female acquaintance, in 1999.
Of four people who saw events connected to the crime, only one, car salesman Kevan Baker, saw Lopez struggle with her assailant, the journal article says. Baker initially described a man who did not resemble DeLuna but changed his story after police brought DeLuna to the store.
Baker later told researchers he was only 70 percent sure of his identification, the journal says. Had police not told him DeLuna had been apprehended nearby, he would have been only 50 percent certain, he said.
Baker, who now lives in Michigan, declined comment Tuesday.
Ellis and Gallego sponsored legislation in the last session that specifies significant changes in the way police conduct live or photo lineups.
A new model
Provisions of a suggested reform package prepared by Sam Houston State University criminologists require that the officer conducting a lineup not know who the suspect is. “Show ups,” in which police present a suspect to witnesses shortly after arrest, are discouraged, and photo or live lineups must contain innocent people who resemble the suspect.
Law enforcement agencies must implement the model plan or comparable reforms of their own devising by September.
“There is no darker stain on the criminal justice system than wrongful conviction,” Gallego said, “and a wrongful execution is the darkest stain of all. The idea behind (our) bill was to try to ensure we did everything humanly possible to minimize the danger of wrongful conviction, and the lion’s share of those cases come from errors in eyewitness identification.”
The New York-based Innocence project reports 75 percent of DNA-based exonerations nationwide entail cases that involved incorrect eyewitness identifications.
Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck hailed the journal article as a “terrific job,” saying that the DeLuna case will join those of Cameron Willingham, Claude Jones and Ruben Cantu in forming a stern indictment of the Texas death penalty. In those cases, serious questions about the men’s guilt arose after they were put to death.
Through a spokeswoman, Gov. Rick Perry, a staunch capital punishment supporter, declined to comment on the law journal’s findings.