“If you’re poor and have no money, and can’t get yourself a lawyer who really gives a shit about your case, you’re going to die,” a defense attorney ruefully notes at one point in “The Phantom,” a fascinating and ultimately infuriating documentary.
This isn’t an entirely fitting description of what befell Carlos DeLuna, a young Hispanic man who was executed in 1989 for a brutal 1983 murder in Corpus Christi that he almost certainly did not commit. Indeed, the film, skillfully and compellingly directed by Patrick Forbes (“Wikileaks: Secrets and Lies”), indicates that DeLuna’s defenders were not indifferent, or incompetent, but grievously (and maybe deliberately) misinformed about mitigating evidence. And yet: The deck was stacked against fringe-dwelling DeLuna, his alibi was never given serious credence, his guilt was all-too-easily assumed by police and prosecutors eager to wrap up what appeared to be an open-and-shut case — and, hey, he was just another Hispanic with a criminal record, albeit one conspicuously absent of violent crimes.
“The Phantom” is a worthy addition to the unfortunately long list of documentaries about miscarriages of justice in Texas, a lineup that also includes Errol Morris’ “The Thin Blue Line,” Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims’ “Incendiary: The Willingham Case,” and Al Reinert’s “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story.” Like the directors of those earlier films, Forbes smoothly entwines talking-heads interviews, archival footage, and shrewdly understated reenactments for compelling effect.
Just as important, Forbes avoids the facile labeling of characters in his real-life drama as heroes and villains — even as he suggests the real killer may have escaped arrest because of his status as a police informant. Everyone, including the original prosecutors in the case, gets a chance to speak their piece. In the end, you’re left with the unsettling impression that Carlos DeLuna may have been wrongly convicted, and given a lethal injection, simply because he fell through the cracks of a system that buries its mistakes.
This much is indisputable: On Feb. 4, 1983, Wanda Lopez, a clerk at the Sigmor Shamrock Gas Station in Corpus Christi, was stabbed to death by a robber while she was making a frantic 911 call. (Be forewarned: We hear a recording of her call, and her screams, more than enough times to make it easy to understand why the jury wanted to punish someone, anyone.) Police rushed to the scene too late to save the victim — but in time to find Carlos DeLuca hiding under a nearby car without a shirt (a detail never adequately explained by prosecutors or Forbes). He had $149 in his pocket.
According to arresting officers, Deluca at first made the mistake of responding with insolent braggadocio — “You ain’t got nothing on me! I’m gonna beat this like I beat the last one!” — then made the bigger mistake of offering an easily shredded alibi. When he finally implicated an acquaintance, career criminal Carlos Hernandez, as the real killer, he had run out of what little credence he had. Assistant district attorney Steve Schiwetz, one of several individuals offering decades-after-the-fact testimony, claims his office made an effort to find a Carlos Hernandez who would match DeLuca’s description — and ultimately decided that this was “a phantom” of DeLuca’s desperation-fueled imagination.
Leaning heavily on the rapid-fire, razzle-dazzling editing of Claire Ferguson and Gregor Lyon, Forbes fashions an arresting narrative supplemented by a diverse array of interviewees, including such standouts as Karen Boudrie, a Corpus Christi TV reporter who, after being initially “creeped out” by DeLuca’s correspondence from prison, came to question his guilt; Manuel DeLuca, Carlos’ brother, who like many siblings in a similar situation worries whether he could have done something to block Carlos’ path to Death Row; and James Liebman, a Columbia Law School professor who, 14 years after DeLuca’s execution, helps to launch a re-evaluation of the facts in the matter.
Late in “The Phantom,” one of the former prosecutors unapologetically quotes Immanuel Kant less as an excuse than an explanation: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” Grievous errors, he implies, are unavoidable in any system born of man. But, of course, that only makes you wonder how many similar errors continue to be made, in Texas and elsewhere. Forbes obviously intends his documentary as an anti-capital punishment cautionary tale, and his film effectively underscores the best argument against the death penalty: It is imprecise.