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Review: The Phantom – “A harrowing and unsettling story”

The state of Texas has a longstanding reputation for imposing more death sentences than any other state.  In fact, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty website, the state accounts for more than 1/3 of executions in the United States, having put 570 people to death since 1976 (the next highest state at 113 deaths is Virginia, which just this year abandoned the death penalty).  One of those people executed was Carlos DeLuna and the documentary The Phantom explores his sentencing and evidence that shows he wrongfully lost his life.

On the night of February 4th, 1983, Wanda Lopez was working alone at a gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas.  As an audio recording of her call to emergency dispatch in the film reveals, she was approached by a man wielding a knife, and despite offering to give him every bit of cash in the register, she is stabbed multiple times, and killed.  The suspect flees on foot as seen by several witnesses giving vague descriptions of him running, but is positively identified by these people as he is pulled out from hiding under a car.  Carlos DeLuna, 21, is arrested with $149 in his pants pocket, about what was taken from the service station.

Over the next six years, DeLuna will be on trial and imprisoned.  He will defend his innocence, but he will lie to his defence attorney about his alibi.  He will eventually name the person who did commit the crime, Carlos Hernandez, but the cops won’t find him, deeming him a fictitious person, a phantom.  DeLuna will decline a life sentence deal, standing strong in the fact that he didn’t commit the crime, but he is instead sentenced to the death penalty.  He is executed by lethal injection December 7, 1989.

The Phantom, directed by Patrick Forbes (2011’s True Stories: Wikileaks – Secrets and Lies) recently had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.  In the film, Forbes includes interviews with DeLuna’s family, his defence attorney, medical examiner, police, and reporter, Karen Boudrie.  This reporter, at the time a novice looking for her first big story, eventually started receiving letters from DeLuna which made her see him as more than just a ‘cold blooded killer.’  She was his final phone call before he died.  These interview subjects help to paint a compelling picture of DeLuna’s innocence and police incompetence – they basically stopped any investigation once DeLuna was arrested.

Probably most convincing is evidence uncovered by a professor at Colombia University who was looking at cases where innocent people may have been executed.  Fourteen years after DeLuna’s death, with the help of a private investigator, this academic uncovers the real Phantom, Carlos Hernandez, and those that knew him as well as potential reasons why he may have been overlooked as a more credible suspect.

During the course of the film Forbes briefly ties in the dangerous history of Corpus Christi, a city where in its early days altercations between Texans and Mexicans often ended in violence.  And while time has improved things from those battles over cattle and horses, it’s clear race still plays a role in how this case, and likely many others in the state, have played out.  As Forbes will tell you over the somber final moments of this film, in the last decade over 60% of the people executed in Texas were people of colour.

In the end, The Phantom tells a harrowing and unsettling story of a man not only wrongfully accused, but wrongfully executed.  While it doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking in its presentation, certainly this would play comfortably alongside any of the other true crime documentaries you may have binged during the pandemic, the film is a competent portrayal of a heartbreaking tale.  In telling Carlos DeLuna’s truth, The Phantom shines a light on an important aspect of the criminal justice system in America that is bound to enrage.

The Phantom will be released in theatres Friday, July 2, 2021.

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