What Is the Columbia DeLuna Project?

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In 2000 and 2002, Columbia Law professor Jim Liebman and others issued two studies of errors in capital cases in the United States: Broken System I: Error Rates in Capital Cases, 1973-1995 and Broken System II: Why Is There So Much Error in Capital Cases and What Can Be Done About It? The studies and a follow-up scholarly article documented exceptionally high rates of serious legal error in U.S. capital cases that state and federal courts had reviewed between 1973 and 1995. Nearly all of that legal error was the kind that seriously undermines the accuracy of the determination that the defendant committed the crime or that he or she deserved to die for it. The studies sparked a heated public debate over two competing implications of the studies. Did the courts’ discovery of so much accuracy-undermining error prove that the system worked to winnow important mistakes out of the system before executions occurred? Or, instead, did the studies reveal so much smoke in the form of serious legal error that there had to be a fire somewhere—cases in which the courts failed to catch serious mistakes and, as a result, allowed innocent people to be executed for crimes committed by others.

In late 2003, Liebman and Douglas Jaffe, then a Columbia law student and now a technologically savvy public education reformer, decided to look for a case to study that might shed light on this debate.  Roughly following the logic of famous serial robber Willie Sutton, who chose to rob banks because “that’s where the money is,” Liebman and Jaffe decided to look for a capital case to study in Texas (the state with the most executions by far in recent times) that involved what many observers believe to be the most alluring yet least reliable type of evidence: eyewitness testimony. Carlos DeLuna’s case came to light because his 1983 conviction and 1989 execution rested mainly on a single eyewitness identification. At trial, DeLuna had testified that it was not he, but a man named Carlos Hernandez, who had killed convenience store clerk Wanda Lopez.

At first, a posthumous inquiry into Carlos DeLuna’s case did not look promising. As one of Liebman’s law professor colleagues said at the time, DeLuna’s “some other dude named Carlos” defense looked absurd on its face. Fueling these doubts, a prosecutor in the case had assured the jury that “Carlos Hernandez” was a “phantom”—a fabrication by Carlos DeLuna—and a federal judge reviewing DeLuna’s conviction some years later agreed that “Carlos Hernandez” probably never existed.

Nevertheless, a private investigator Liebman knew named Peso Chavez was on his way to Corpus Christi on another matter, and Liebman figured it couldn’t hurt to have Chavez spend a day looking into DeLuna’s claim that Carlos Hernandez was the real culprit. Chavez’s findings changed the whole tenor of the case, leading Liebman to create the Columbia DeLuna Project—a team of Columbia law students and private investigators from around the United States—to dig deeper into the case.

Over the next year and a half, members of the team, whose names are collected in the Acknowledgments to the book, tracked down and interviewed over a hundred witnesses. The team compiled and reviewed all of the relevant records related to police, sheriff, district attorney, state police, prison, social services, television, newspaper, criminal and civil court, trial and appellate court, state and federal court, and other records, along with photographs, and audio- and videotapes pertaining to the case that were still in existence twenty and more years after the fact. (To take a self-guided tour through the witness interviews and other records the Project collected, go to the primary sources page and establish your itinerary.)

The Project’s next step was to share its evidence and results with two of the nation’s top investigative journalists with expertise in criminal and capital cases, Chicago Tribune reporters Steve Mills and Maurice Possley. After retracing and extending the investigation, Mills and Possley wrote a three-part series (one, two, three) on the case that the Tribune published in June 2006.

After a hiatus of being suspended for four years while Liebman (fortuitously reuniting with Doug Jaffe) pursued his other professional passion for public education reform, the Columbia DeLuna Project was reborn in 2010. At that time, Columbia law students Shawn Crowley, Lauren Rosenberg, Lauren Gallo White, Daniel Zharkovsky, and later Andrew Markquart, came together to write a comprehensive treatment of the case. The initial result was an article in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review entitled, Los Tocayos Carlos. The culminating result was this: The Wrong Carlos book and this accompanying website.

Along the way, the Project was generously supported and aided by a number of individuals and non-profit organizations, also listed in the Acknowledgments, that share the Project’s concern for the fairness and accuracy of our criminal justice system.  No organization contributed more than the Gulf Region Advocacy Center (GRACE) in Houston, Texas—a small non-profit law office dedicated to freeing criminal and capital prisoners from unjust convictions and sentences throughout the South. In recognition of that assistance—and in hopes of keeping future Carlos DeLunas and Wanda Lopezes from being irreparably denied the justice they deserve—the culminating members of the Project and the authors of this book have agreed to donate their royalties (exclusive of costs) to GRACE. We encourage our readers to make contributions of their own.