“If you’re poor, and you have no money, and can’t get yourself a lawyer who really gives a shit about your case, you’re going to die.”
Capital punishment continues to be controversial, although more states are moving away from its use, either by law or by practice. One reason is that from time to time, it becomes clear that an innocent person has been executed. The Phantom, from director Patrick Forbes, is one of those stories.
In Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1983, a woman was brutally killed at a gas station convenience store. It happened while she was on the phone with 911. Police soon arrested Carlos DeLuna, who was hiding under a car. The film begins with the crime (and some reenactments) and moves quickly to the trial, hearing from the attorneys involved (both defense and prosecutor, plus his appellate lawyer and victim’s family’s attorney), as well as news reporters who covered the story. It isn’t hard to understand how the jury would convict DeLuna of the crime, given the evidence presented. There are a few holes in the evidence, but it didn’t seem all that important. He was sentenced to death, and after appeals, he was executed in 1989. To his death he maintained his innocence, saying another person named Carlos did the murder.
Fourteen years later, a project working out of Columbia University sent an investigator to Texas to look into possible capital punishment mistakes. DeLuna’s case was not high on their list, but very quickly the investigator discovered “the phantom” suspect that the police had not found. The film goes on to build layer by layer the evidence that the second Carlos (who had since died) was obviously the murderer. That meant that the state of Texas killed an innocent man.
The film raises questions of how this could have happened. Did the police just not do a thorough job? Were the police aware of the other Carlos, but ignored him because he was an informant? Does lack of money and status play a significant role in who gets executed? Is race a factor?
But it leaves it to the audience to think about what it says about society that we are willing to allow innocent people to be put to death. How many such cases are we willing to tolerate to do what some think prevents further murders? As one person in the film says, the state kills people to tell people it’s wrong to kill people.
A key issue that needs to be thought of as well is the way the legal system, both police and courts, are often stacked against poor people and people of color. Even in the appeals process, everything seems more about procedure rather than finding the truth. Yet when the truth is not to be found, justice will not be done. In Carlos DeLuna’s case, there was no justice to be found.
The Phantom is playing in theaters.
Photos courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment.