Interview with James Liebman, Author of "The Wrong Carlos"

The Wrong Carlos

“If you want money, you rob banks. If you want to study executions, you go to Texas.”—James Liebman

A few weeks ago we featured The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution by James Liebman and the Columbia DeLuna Project and interest in the book and the case continues to grow. Most recently James Liebman was interviewed by The Christian Science Monitor about the book and the case. The following is an excerpt from the interview:

Q: What convinced you to investigate a specific death penalty case?

In 2000 and 2002, we published a big study which showed there was a huge amount of adjudicated errors found in capital cases in the United States by state and federal courts. Essentially, two-thirds of all death verdicts reviewed over a quarter century had been overturned based on serious error.

Proponents say the system is working, and we don’t have to worry about the ultimate error of someone being innocent. There’s another interpretation. If an airline company or a car company had this level of error, nobody would want to go near them. If there’s this much smoke, there’s got to be fire.

So we wanted to examine a particular case to see if we could determine the risk of executing the innocent. We went from a statistical study where we were just counting outcomes to making a judgement call about which cases would be interesting to look at.

Q: How did you find this case in particular?

We started by looking at Texas cases. If you want money, you rob banks. If you want to study executions, you go to Texas.

We started looking at eyewitness identification cases because of the long-standing evidence that these cases can be faulty. The witness in this case was one person who happened to be pumping gas outside a store where a clerk was attacked and killed.

He saw the assailant come out of the store and run away. After a 45-minute manhunt, he identified Carlos de Luna.

This case fit what we were looking for.

Q: It sounds like every institution failed in this case – the police, the prosecutors, the defense, the judge, the press. Who was most at fault?

What really surprised us in this case—and honestly changed my mind about how we think about error in criminal cases—is that it wasn’t any one thing. It was a combination of everything failing, a perfect storm, a collection of different errors.

Why was it this case where everything would fail instead of some other case? We came to the conclusion that it wasn’t just the defendant who was a person of no status, privilege, or interest to anybody to spend time protecting. The same was true of the victim, a poor, single high-school dropout from the Hispanic community. Nobody cared enough about her to want to get to the bottom of things. Everybody’s prone to cut corners and not do a very good job.

Another thing is that Corpus Christi as a community has overused the death penalty. It’s one of the top 15 per-capita execution communities in the United States.

Q: In 2006, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared that opponents of the death penalty hadn’t found a case of an innocent person being executed: “If such an event had occurred in recent years, we would not have to hunt for it; the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops by the abolition lobby.” Now you have just such a case, and it’s gotten plenty of attention. But will it matter?

It’s having an effect, and there’s a conversation taking place about that case. It becomes much harder for people like Justice Scalia to say the execution of an innocent person never happened because no one’s talking about it, it’s never been documented.

There is a clear process in which the public is taking the death penalty issue back from the courts and asserting its right to decide on this issue. Little by little, individual counties are no longer using the death penalty, and six states recently have abolished it.

Through their prosecutors, jurors, and judges, communities are quietly deciding the risks and costs of the death penalty aren’t worth it anymore. That’s ultimately how this issue may be decided, by individuals across the country.

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