May 17, 2012 -- A brutal murder, two similar-looking suspects, and a death sentence.
For Jim Liebman, these three ingredients became the catalyst for exposing one of the judicial system's greatest risks: executing an innocent person.
In a new book-length study written by Liebman, a Columbia law professor, and six of his students and published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review, the decision to execute Carlos De Luna for the 1983 murder of a Corpus Christi gas station attendant is called into question again and again.
"This case, because it is such an everyday case, a very commonplace case, an 'everycase' if you've got problems in this kind of case that no one was paying attention to. It contributes to the wider debate about what the risks [of the death penalty] are to human life," Liebman told ABC News.
De Luna was arrested in 1983 for the murder of Wanda Lopez, a brutal killing in which Lopez was stabbed to death by a Hispanic man shopping in the convenience store where she worked. But throughout his arrest, trial and time on death row, De Luna insisted it was Carlos Hernandez, a friend of his from Corpus Christi, who looked uncannily similar to De Luna, who'd actually killed Lopez.
Liebman, who set out to examine whether the judicial system had put seemingly-innocent criminals to death, spent five years investigating the details of the De Luna case. He and his team of investigators and students talked to more than 100 witnesses, combed through 20 feet of documents and compiled a 400-plus page narrative case study of the Lopez murder. To back up their assertions, the team put the study online, with hundreds of footnotes and links to original documents and primary source materials so that people could come to their own conclusions about the two Carloses.
Liebman's students arranged to have the study published in a special issue of the Human Rights Law Review, which will be devoted entirely to the De Luna narrative. The decision to publish their findings as a nonfiction narrative story, rather than as an academic paper, was made to try to bring a more general readership to the story of Carlos De Luna.
"My hope is that this will bring more readers to the story and potentially a broader category of readers, including college students around country and even the public," Liebman said.
During its investigation, the team found a mountain of evidence that convinced them De Luna was innocent. They talked to Hernandez's family and friends, who made it seem as if it was "common knowledge" in Corpus Christi that Hernandez had bragged about making De Luna his "fall guy," Liebman said.
"People came forward who'd held this secret for 20 years. It was really hard for them to talk about it, but they lived with the guilt that they could have done something," Liebman said.
While prosecutors pushed forward with the case against De Luna, Hernandez allegedly confessed multiple times, including just weeks after Lopez's death.
Liebman and his students also found glaring mistakes about how police and prosecutors had treated the case, including contamination of the crime scene by investigators.
Photos of the crime scene show a footprint in blood on the convenience store floor and splatters of blood 2 feet high on the walls around Lopez's body. De Luna's clothes and shoes, however, were not found to have any traces of blood on them, and investigators never bothered to take the shoe print and compare it to De Luna's shoes. They contaminated the fingerprint evidence too, Liebman found.
De Luna maintained his innocence throughout his trial, his time on death row and in his last words before he was executed in 1989.
Hernandez went on to be arrested more than a dozen times, including for the murder of a different woman, killed by a knife similar to the one used in Lopez's killing. The charges were dropped because of prosecutorial delay, according to Liebman's study.
For Liebman and his co-authors, the evidence that was ignored during the trial convinced them that, if retried today, no jury would find De Luna guilty.
"More specifically, we believe that on the evidence now known, a jury could not convict Carlos DeLuna beyond a reasonable doubt but could easily convict Carlos Hernandez beyond a reasonable doubt," Liebman said.
Hernandez died in prison in 1999 of liver disease, and the case will never be reopened, Liebman acknowledged. But the five-year investigation into the judicial system's handling of the Wanda Lopez murder is especially relevant today, he said.
"There has always been a debate about the death penalty, and there are very strong moral arguments on both sides," he said. "The debate now really lies in a policy debate, [as in] is this something worthwhile for government to do? The public is at that point where that's where they want to have that debate, and the best way for me to contribute is to tell this story, the facts as we know them, and document those facts, so people can make up their own minds."