EXECUTED AND INNOCENT
Stories of Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos De Luna
Proponents claim that laws like Prop 66 “work” in other states like Texas. They are mistaken. They also fail to understand the many ways in which California is different than Texas.
First, the premise that the post-conviction review process is “working” in places like Texas is incorrect. Many experts believe that Texas has executed innocent people. People like Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos De Luna.
Cameron Todd Willingham
Just two days before Christmas in 1991, a house fire tragically killed Cameron Todd Willingham’s three little girls: 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins, Karmon and Kameron. Willingham tried to save the girls but the fire engulfed the house.
Using outdated science, police determined the fire was arson and Willingham was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. Years after the conviction, arson science evolved, and forensic experts around the country agreed that the fire was a tragic accident. He was just an innocent father whose three little girls were tragically killed in a house fire.
But Texas limits the ability of death row inmates to challenge their convictions and Willingham wasn’t allowed to present the new evidence of his innocence in court. In 2004 he was executed. Since his execution, even more evidence has emerged that he was innocent.
Carlos De Luna
Another Texas case involves Carlos De Luna, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery-murder of Wanda Lopez in 1983 even though no blood evidence, DNA evidence, or fingerprints linked him to the crime. He was identified by only one witness.
De Luna, like virtually everyone facing the death penalty, could not afford his own attorneys and was represented at trial by unqualified court-appointed attorneys. One of his attorneys was a former prosecutor who had never handled a criminal defense case. Just six years later, De Luna was executed.
But another man – Carlos Hernandez – bragged to at least five people that he actually committed the crime. Hernandez and De Luna look remarkably similar: when shown photos of the two men side by side, even their family members can’t tell them apart. Experts now believe Texas made a mistake when it executed 27-year-old Carlos De Luna.
The National Registry of Exonerations shows 165 people have been wrongly convicted and exonerated in California just since 1989. Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) indicates that there have been more than 150 exonerations from death row nationally, including three from California. Therefore, in the same period that California has carried out 13 executions, it has released three men due to wrongful conviction. DPIC notes that the average time between sentence and exoneration nationally has been 11.3 years, and seven out of the last 10 exonerations occurred 25 years or more after the death sentence was imposed, and nine out of 10 occurred at least a decade after the death sentence was imposed.
The only way to prevent the execution of an innocent person in California is to ensure meaningful post- conviction review in death penalty cases.