CORPUS CHRISTI, TX — On December 7, 1989, Carlos DeLuna was executed by lethal injection in Texas for the murder of Wanda Lopez, a 24-year-old gas station attendant.
But since DeLuna’s execution, doubts have been raised about the conviction and the question of his guilt. Some experts have asked: Did the state of Texas execute the wrong man?
The murder took place on February 4, 1983, at the Shamrock gas station. Lopez was stabbed multiple times after she called 911 to report a suspicious person who turned out to be her killer.
The senseless crime was even more shocking once the 911 tapes revealed that Lopez appeared to be giving her killer the money he wanted. She could be heard saying, “You want it? I’ll give it to you. I’ll give it to you. I’m not going to do nothing to you. Please!”
DeLuna was examined by two psychiatrists, and told both of them that he had no memory of the night Lopez was murdered.
At trial, he took the stand in his own defense and testified that he had spent the early evening with two sisters, Mary Ann Perales and Linda Perales. He said that a man named Carlos Hernandez approached them, and he remembered him as someone he had known as a child.
According to DeLuna, he and the other Carlos went to a strip club named Wolfy’s — which was located directly across the street from the Shamrock gas station.
DeLuna stated that Hernandez went to buy something at the gas station, and then he saw him attacking Lopez, so he panicked and fled, as he was on parole, which he was violating in the first place, by drinking at Wolfy’s.
The prosecution found inconsistencies in DeLuna’s story — including evidence that one of the sisters DeLuna claimed to have been with on the night of the murder was actually attending a baby shower at the time.
In the end, the jury convicted DeLuna and later sentenced him to death.
In June 2006, the Chicago Tribune published a series of investigative news stories that examined evidence that DeLuna may have been convicted in error. The paper identified five people who stated that Hernandez told them that he was the one who had stabbed Lopez and that DeLuna, whom he called his “stupid tocayo,” or namesake, had been sentenced to death in his place.
Although the Tribune allowed that some of De Luna’s actions on the night of Lopez’s killing were suspicious, the paper’s investigation claimed to have uncovered substantial evidence that undermined the conviction — and execution.
Extensive further research on the case was published in May 2012 by the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. The Columbia investigation also focused on DeLuna’s insistence that Hernandez committed the crime.
The team found that Hernandez, who died from cirrhosis in a Texas prison in 1999, was a career criminal living in the same neighborhood and had a history of assaulting women and robbing gas stations. He also reportedly had a habit of carrying lock-blade knives similar to the one used to kill Lopez.
The investigation also learned that Hernandez had been arrested as a suspect in the death of a woman, Dahlia Sauceda, killed several years earlier in the same area of Corpus Christi. The charges against Hernandez were later dropped.
The team also found numerous discrepancies in eyewitnesses accounts. This included the description of the attacker’s clothing, the direction that he ran after stabbing Lopez, and whether the attacker was clean-shaven or had a mustache.
Columbia Law School Professor James Liebman and a team of his former students wrote a book, The Wrong Carlos, based on the investigation that details the group’s findings.
The Columbia report has drawn criticism from some officials in Corpus Christi, who insist that DeLuna was guilty of murdering Lopez.
Police found DeLuna 30 to 40 minutes after the attack, hiding a few blocks away from the Shamrock gas station underneath a parked truck.
No blood was found on him, but other physical evidence seemed to point to DeLuna’s guilt — including that, at the time of his arrest, he had fresh fingernail scratches under his right arm and on his face.
It may never be known whether it was Carlos DeLuna or Carlos Hernandez who murdered Wanda Lopez. But whether or not the state of Texas executed an innocent man on December 7, 1989, DeLuna’s last words were, “I want to say I hold no grudges.”
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Main photo: Carlos DeLuna [City of Corpus Christi Police Dept.]