Patrick Forbes, the filmmaker of a new documentary on what many feel was the unjust death of an innocent man, believes the video “sparks change.”
The Phantom, which opens in cinemas on Friday, chronicles the story of Carlos DeLuna.
DeLuna was killed in Texas in 1989, nearly seven years after authorities said he stole a convenience store in Corpus Christi and stabbed an employee, Wanda Lopez, to death. DeLuna maintained his innocence until his death, informing authorities that Lopez was slain by another guy at the convenience store, another Carlos who looked just like him.
Local investigators maintained they could never track down this second man, Carlos Hernandez. He was a phantom.
But more than two decades after DeLuna’s execution, a report published by Columbia University’s Human Rights Law Review, said Texas convicted and executed the wrong man for Lopez’s death.
Not only was there really a Carlos Hernandez, but he looked remarkably like DeLuna and had bragged about getting away with killing Lopez.
Forbes said he was “fascinated” by the story, which he spent eight years bringing to theaters.
“The inherent bones of the story are incredibly dramatic,” he told UPI. “They are the stuff of books. They are the stuff of films. They are the stuff of drama.”
Not only that, but the story of Lopez’s death, DeLuna’s wrongful execution and a botched police investigation are “incredibly important,” Forbes said. The death penalty, he added, “depends on certainty.”
“If you can show it’s uncertain, there’s no way of going back,” he said. The death penalty “is wrong and this movie demonstrates precisely why this is wrong.”
Forbes said he felt it was important to tell DeLuna and Lopez’s stories in a visually “exciting” way to make them “come alive.” He didn’t want to rely solely on stagnant interviews with a seated subject.
“In real life, people don’t stay in one place. They move around and experience things in different places,” he said.
This approach to filming paid off in an unexpected way one night while filming in Corpus Christi.
Forbes said he asked a police officer he was interviewing to crawl on the ground to re-enact the moment authorities arrested DeLuna after chasing him from the convenience store. DeLuna had tried to hide underneath a parked vehicle.
The filmmaker said he had the police lights going at the time to set the scene, and a crowd grew to watch.
“One of the people tapped a producer on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, I was there that night,'” Forbes said, adding that the man told him he saw two men running that night, presumably DeLuna and the “phantom” Hernandez.
“No one at the trial testified to that fact,” that they saw “two men running,” Forbes added.
He said he was able to get that key piece of eye-witness testimony solely because of his decision to film at the scene with the police lights flashing.
Forbes said he got the idea to make The Phantom from a producer who read about DeLuna’s case. James Liebman, a professor at Columbia Law School, wrote the report on DeLuna that first piqued Forbes’ attention. He’s also interviewed in The Phantom about the case.
Liebman told UPI that he was intrigued to DeLuna’s case because it was completely based on eyewitness testimony – witnesses at the scene said they saw a man flee from the convenience store and later identified DeLuna as the culprit. Witnesses, on the other hand, characterised the suspect’s clothing differently, indicating that two guys fled the scene.
According to Liebman, failures occurred at “every single stage” of DeLuna’s case, including at the time of arrest and throughout the enquiry. However, he stated that the “great injustice” of DeLuna’s wrongful execution was not merely the product of a “bad guy” in the criminal justice system who wanted someone to be executed.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that a more common and mundane … set of failures … more commonly results in miscarriages of justice than the kind of evil person theory that most people have,” he said.
Liebman says he thinks the movie will have an impact with audiences. He pointed to a recent decline in support for the death penalty across the United States.
Gallup’s most recent survey on the subject revealed that support for the death sentence in the United States is at its lowest position in more than 50 years, about when the punishment was reinstated.
According to a November study, 55 percent of Americans support the death sentence, while 43 percent reject it. Support has declined from a high of 80% in the mid-1990s.
As more governments abolish the death penalty, this dwindling support is becoming enshrined in law. Virginia became the 23rd state to abolish the death penalty in March, when Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation to that effect.
And more than a dozen of the 27 states that still carry the death penalty haven’t carried out an execution in at least a decade.
Liebman described this moment of change in Americans’ opinions as a “watershed point.”
“The balance is about to turn against the death penalty on a state-by-state basis,” he said.
That change has been reflected across President Joe Biden’s career. As senator, he supported the use of the death penalty, but in recent years his stance has shifted toward abolition.
“Since 1973, over 160 individuals in this country have been sentenced to death and were later exonerated,” he tweeted in July 2019. “Because we can’t ensure that we get these cases right every time, we must eliminate the death penalty.”
The federal government hasn’t held any executions since Biden took office in January, a stark change from the flurry of 13 executions former President Donald Trump carried out in the last several months of his administration.
It’s uncertain if Biden will advocate for a stop to federal executions, since his own Justice Department just requested for the capital penalty to be revived for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Forbes expressed optimism that Biden will abolish the federal death sentence, and that The Phantom will assist ignite that shift.
The death sentence is “wrong,” he says, and “this film demonstrates precisely why this is wrong.” “It’s the sort of film that you should make as a documentary maker.”