Documentary Review: Finding “The Phantom” may show Texas executed the wrong man — again

On a night in February of 1983, Carlos DeLuna ran away from the scene of a murder, a Corpus Christi, Texas convenience store.

The 911 dispatcher, and later a courtroom, heard the 911 tape of Wanda Lopez confirming that a Hispanic male was robbing her store, and heard him kill her.

There were eyewitnesses. And when after a “chaotic” 45 minute manhunt, the police dragged DeLuna, a man with a long rap sheet, out from under a van and stuck him in a police car, those eyewitnesses identified him as the killer they’d seen.

DeLuna assured cops that he didn’t do it, but that he knew who did. He gave the police a name. He trotted out an alibi. And then he clammed up.

But at trial, that alibi was proven a lie. Prosecutor Steve Schiwetz was “very compelling,” recall reporters who were present there, as he said that other person named, “Carlos Hernandez,” as a “phantom,” no one they’d ever heard of.

As even his defense attorney lost faith, DeLuna was convicted. irregularities in the case, things the prosecution either didn’t know or failed to reveal, turned up. But “nobody wanted to rock the boat,” one attorney remembers. “The case was closed.” And six years later, Texas put Carlos DeLuna to death.

Using recreations, TV coverage, police, attorney and eyewitness testimomy, filmmaker Patrick Forbes leads us through this case in a way it must have unfolded back in the ’80s. In “The Phantom” he allows us to believe what witnesses, lawyers, police, the media and a jury did way back then. We’re kind of implicated, in that way. It seems “open and shut.”

But then we hear an attorney not directly linked to the case, Rene Rodriguez, speak about how Corpus Christi justice worked back then. “If it involves somebody of color,” he says, to the locals that just meant “one less Mexican.” Rodriguez, and later James Liebman, professor at Columbia University, point out the gaping holes in the case, with the fact that a crime scene covered in blood and bloody footprints, there wasn’t a drop on DeLuna.

We learn that there were conflicting descriptions of the suspect. We hear that police “recorded over” taped accounts of the manhunt, and hear a version they didn’t erase. And we see that the “phantom” was real, that cops and prosecutors knew all about this knife-wielding sociopath, who left a trail of violence leading up to that murder, with more violence to come as he walked the streets, a free man.

We start to wonder and then we lose all doubt. Once again, rush-to-judgement Texas has executed the wrong man.

Forbes — “The Widowmaker” heart attack documentary was his — basically recreates the crime and the research on it done by Liebman and his student team and published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. He skillfully takes from a shocking crime to the almost as shocking miscarriage of justice that follows. And he lets us see how it might have happened.

That’s what sets “The Phantom” apart from other “Innocence Project” cases and the like. We can see why people were convinced they had the right guy, only noticing the discrepancies when they’re pointed out to us.

The elderly, thoroughly professional coroner wonders why there was no blood on the man arrested, and explains how there should be. Prosecutor Schiwetz feigns ignorance about not “finding” Carlos Hernandez, when he’d been arrested for convenience store knife robberies, with identical looking weapons, several times. Defense attorney James Lawrence bristles and says he’s heard the “bad lawyer” complaint before.

It’s pretty damn damning, to be honest.

And we wonder why we’re still letting an easily-corrupted system kill people on our behalf, and if anything will ever change, especially in Texas.

MPA Rating: unrated, a graphic 911 tape, crime scene photos

Cast: Manuel DeLuna, Mary Conejo, Steve Schiwetz, George Aguirre, Julie Arsuaga, Karen Boudrie, Linda Carrico, James Liebman,

Credits: Directed by Patrick Forbes. A Greenwich Entertainment release.

Running time: 1:23

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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