This illustrates the main criticism of capital punishment – that there is a constant potential for innocent people to be executed. A study conducted by Professor James Liebman and 12 students, entitled ‘Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution’, has concluded that Carlos De Luna, an innocent man, was executed for the murder of Wanda Lopez at a supermarket instead of the murderer, Carlos Hernandez, on 8th December 1989 in Texas.
This was a very unusual case, however, and it is easy to see how mistakes could have been made. Firstly, Carlos De Luna was present at the scene of the crime, and he fled the scene when police arrived. De Luna obviously shared the same first name as Hernandez, but they also had a remarkable physical similarity. Hernandez’s lawyer failed to distinguish between the two when shown photographs, and even De Luna’s sister, Rose, could not tell the difference.
While it is understandable that the two men could be confused with one another, the parochial mentality of the prosecutors in securing the conviction and execution cannot be justified. De Luna said to police and the jury that Hernandez was the real killer, but quite disturbingly the prosecutor’s lawyer stated that Carlos Hernandez was a ‘phantom’ and ‘a figment of De Luna’s imagination’. In fact, Hernandez was known to police and was arrested, over the years, a total of 39 times. DNA evidence was also poorly handled and most of the evidence could not be used at trial.
Though the circumstances are unusual and the use of forensic evidence has improved since the 1980’s, this study shows that capital punishment is an affront to justice if innocent people are put to death. There is, of course, the possibility that people could be imprisoned for crimes they have not committed, but the nature of the death penalty means that any errors are irreversible and wrongfully accused people cannot be released if later information comes to light.
The following website contains some of the sources and evidence that the study was based upon: http://www3.law.columbia.edu/hrlr/ltc/