CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- It was a secret they all shared. Some kept it out of fear. Some because no one ever asked. Whatever their reasons, it was a secret that might have saved Carlos De Luna from the execution chamber.
Twenty-three years after Wanda Lopez was murdered in the gas station where she worked, family members and acquaintances of another man, Carlos Hernandez, have broken their silence to support what De Luna had long asserted: Hernandez, a violent felon, killed Lopez in 1983.
A Tribune investigation has identified five people who say Hernandez told them that he stabbed Lopez and that De Luna, whom he called his "stupid tocayo," or namesake, went to Death Row in his place.
They also say he admitted killing another woman, in 1979, a crime for which he was indicted but never tried.
Although some aspects of De Luna's actions on the night of Lopez's killing remain suspicious, the Tribune uncovered substantial evidence that undermines his conviction. Among the findings:
The only witness who came face to face with the killer at the station after Lopez was stabbed now says he was not positive of his identification of De Luna. He identified De Luna, he said, after police told him they had arrested De Luna hiding under a truck near the scene of the attack--information that eased his uncertainty.
The Tribune's analysis of financial records from the Sigmor gas station also undercuts the state's assertion that the killing took place during a robbery, an aggravating circumstance that elevated the murder to a death penalty case. Newly examined inventory documents suggest no money was taken at all.
The prosecution argued that Hernandez was a "phantom," even though one of the prosecutors knew well of Hernandez but failed to inform De Luna's attorneys--a possible legal error that could have been a reason to overturn his conviction.
And one of Corpus Christi's senior detectives at the time of the crime now says he believes De Luna was wrongly executed. The former detective, Eddie Garza, said tipsters told him that Hernandez killed Lopez, the mother of a 6-year-old girl. Yet it appears those tips were not pursued.
Garza knew both men and said Lopez's slaying was the kind of crime Hernandez would commit, not De Luna.
"I don't think [De Luna] had it in him to do something like this and stab somebody to death," Garza said.
But Hernandez, he added, "was a ruthless criminal. He had a bad heart. I believe he was a killer."
Read my thoughts about this story here.