You know it's happened. We all know it's happened. We all try to pretend that there is no way it could happen. But that's just a fantasy we create to get through the day.
The Columbia Human Rights Law Review has dedicated an entire issue to a case in Texas where it appears far more likely than not that the State of Texas murdered an innocent man. In 1989 Carlos DeLuna was strapped to a gurney and killed for the 1983 murder of Wanda Lopez. But a professor and his students have made a compelling case that Mr. DeLuna wasn't the killer.
Mr. DeLuna was convicted largely on the word of one eyewitness. And it turns out that the witness isn't so sure it was Mr. DeLuna he saw. The evidence uncovered by the law students points to another Carlos - Carlos Hernandez - as the murderer.
And if the law students are right - how does that change the way we think about the death penalty? Can we really trust twelve citizens to make the decision whether or not to take someone's life? What safeguards are there to prevent an innocent man from being executed?
Actual innocence isn't grounds for an appeal. There must be some procedural error in the record in order to overturn a verdict. Disagreeing with the verdict won't cut it.
The case raises questions about just what constitutes a fair trial. Is a procedurally fair trial that generates a wrong verdict (convicting a factually innocent man) actually a fair trial? And what does that say for our system of justice when a trial can be conducted by the rules and a jury still finds that a factually innocent man is guilty?
The answers are troubling indeed. If those things can happen, can we allow the state to take the life of an inmate under any circumstances? If we have no safeguards to prevent one innocent man from being convicted, can we, in good conscience, take a life?
Even if we assume that Mr. DeLuna is the only innocent man to be executed in the United States, isn't that one person too many? How do you balance the risk of murdering an innocent man with killing an infinite number of guilty men?: At what point does that one life no longer tip the scale?
We have seen too many examples of men who have watched their lives pass by in prison before being exonerated. There are few things worse than the knowledge that an innocent man has sat behind bars while the state does everything they can to keep him there. The knowledge that an innocent man was killed by the state is one of those things.
The scale of justice demands that we end the madness of the death penalty before another innocent person is put to their death. Enough is enough.
Click here to read Los Tocayos Carlos, the spring edition of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review.