Netflix’s The Phantom explores crime and how a miscarriage of justice can affect more than one life. Multiple murders, a wrong verdict, and the execution of an innocent at the sheer cost of information make this documentary shockingly painful.
On the night of February 4, 1983, Carlos DeLuna ran away from the scene of the murder of Wanda Lopez. She was working behind the counter at a Corpus Christi, Texas, convenience store. A 45-minute manhunt followed. The 911 dispatcher, and later a whole courtroom, heard the tape of Wanda Lopez describing a Hispanic male with a knife who was robbing the store and heard him kill her.
Eyewitnesses saw the police drag out Carlos DeLuna in a long rap sheet from under a van and take him into custody. They identified him as the murderer. DeLuna assured the cops that he didn’t kill Lopez and gave them the name Carlos Hernandez.
DeLuna trotted out an alibi, a woman named Mary Ann Perales. However, she denied being with him, and thus the alibi was proven a lie. District Attorney Steve Schiwetz, according to the reporters, was “very compelling” when he declared Carlos Hernandez’s existence devoid of any proof and that he was a “phantom.” Even DeLuna’s defense attorney lost faith. He then opted for an appeal attorney Richard Anderson. But still to no avail.
Rene Rodriguez, attorney for Wada Lopez’s family, recovered photographs of the crime scene at the Corpus Christi convenience store hampered by the cops’ movements over all the evidence and blood. He showed these photographs to defense attorney James Lawrence and appeal attorney for DeLuna, Richard Anderson. While the former kept quiet, the latter disapproved of knowing anything about the pictures till the present. Carlos DeLuna was thus convicted of murder on July 20, 1983.
There were other irregularities as well that weren’t mentioned during the trial. But nobody wanted to take the case any further. “The case was closed.” Six years later, on 1989, December 7, Carlos DeLuna was executed using the process of lethal injection.
Filmmaker Patrick Forbes successfully gives an account of how the events must have unfolded in the 80s via the use of TV coverages, scene recreations, testimonies of the cops, attorneys, news reporters, and eyewitnesses. And it was a deliberate “open and shut” case.
14 years later, the year is 2003. While investigating the case, Professor James Liebman of Columbia Law School finds out that Carlos Hernandez did exist and had a long history of crimes against women. Both he and Rene Rodriguez mentioned how the crime had blood all over it, and there wasn’t a drop of it on DeLuna. We also came to know that there were two different descriptions of the suspect. Furthermore, tapes of the manhunt on the night of the crime from the dispatch had been taped over.
Finally, Liebman reveals that Hernandez was a small-time police informant and did favors for the police. In return, the police did favors for him, which he took complete advantage of and got away with his crimes in a short time. This statement was denied by Ken Botany, who was the prosecutor for another case of murder for which Hernandez was held accountable. Still, according to Botary, there was no justification for this claim. Somehow, everyone denied the involvement of Hernandez in crimes, and the reason for this was the same as mentioned above.
As far as evidence is concerned, the knife recovered from the crime scene looked very similar to Hernandez’s on him. Furthermore, Hernandez used the same knife to assault women and bragged about it to everyone. Yet, in the eyes of the law, he was deemed not guilty.
The whole case uplifted by The Phantom shows how color ruled over justice in Corpus Christi back then. Rene Rodriguez says, “If it involves somebody of color,” to the locals, it was just “one less Mexican.” DeLuna’s good nature was revealed to us by not just KZTV reporter Karen Boudrie whom DeLuna had taken a liking to, based on the letters he wrote to her, but also his sister Mary and the chaplain who were with him on the night of his execution.
“Texas likes to kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.” These words of the chaplain clearly reflect upon the nature of us humans as a single race. Unfortunately, the only force capable of breaking barriers of race is hatred. And yet, we wonder why we let such a corrupted system kill people and whether things will ever change for the better, not only for Texas but for the world.
The Phantom is a 2021 Crime Documentary directed by Patrick Forbes. It is streaming on Netflix.