Rick Halperin, head of SMU's human rights program, has been saying for years what became nationally recognized this week: "Yes, America, We Have Executed an Innocent Man," to borrow a headline from the Atlantic. Halperin has spent his career doing the academic equivalent of banging his head against the wall trying to get people to recognize that it is possible to kill innocent prisoners and hosting event after event with death penalty exonerees sharing their stories.
Finally, a lengthy report released this week by Columbia University's law school concludes what Halperin's been saying all along: America killed an innocent prisoner in 1989. Or, more specifically, Texas killed an innocent prisoner in 1989.
That man's name is Carlos DeLuna, as the signs of anti-death penalty demonstrators outside the Dallas County Courthouse read this morning. Flaws in his case lead to his wrongful conviction and eventual death at the hands of the state. Halperin gathered a small crowd, in the face of this revelation, to plea that District Attorney Craig Watkins stop seeking death sentences for people charged with capital crimes.
Halperin made it clear that life without parole is often an appropriate punishment -- just not death. "A death sentence is many things, but it can never be equated to justice," Halperin said, demanding that Watkins do his job of "seeking justice."
Watkins has said many times, including in an interview with Unfair Park, that he is conflicted about the death penalty, but that he feels bound by duty to pursue it in cases that warrant the ultimate punishment. Halperin doesn't buy it.
"It's preposterous for a grown man who happens to be a District Attorney to be conflicted about the death penalty," he says. "This man needs to come out one way or the other."
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The Columbia report on DeLuna has "profound ramifications" in Dallas, Halperin says, since Watkins' policies have made the county ground zero for exonerations, leading the charge in releasing wrongfully convicted prisoners. The current count is 33.
Halperin hopes the Columbia report will be a "catalyst to renewed and wider debate on the death penalty." While Columbia report has catapulted his message to a national stage, he's strengthening his cause locally, on the steps of the courthouse, with drivers speeding by and news cameras zooming in.
"It says something pretty dark and disturbing about us," Halperin says of the death penalty and the lost life of an innocent man. Several supporters of Ben Spencer, including his mother, held signs supporting the man many believe to be innocent of the murder that landed him behind bars. Others held signs listing the names of Dallas exonerees, the others on death row who may be innocent, and those executed in Texas despite evidence of innocence.
Halperin's message and the cases listed on the signs serve to show that Columbia's report, "Los Tocayos Carlos: An Anatomy of a Wrongful Conviction," may have prequels that have never been published. And that's why, Halperin says, "One is too many ... Carlos DeLuna is too many."