‘The Phantom’ Review: The Death Penalty for a Doppelgänger

“The Phantom,” a documentary from Patrick Forbes, examines a case that in recent years has been cited as an example of a likely wrongful conviction that ended in the death penalty. Carlos DeLuna was executed in Texas in 1989 for the murder of a Corpus Christi gas station convenience store clerk. At his trial, he implicated another man, Carlos Hernandez. The prosecution dismissed Hernandez as a phantom.

But the movie, based on an account by a Columbia law school professor, James Liebman, and his researchers, amasses evidence that Hernandez, who died in 1999, was no apparition. It indicates that he had a history of violence and that the investigation was hasty. The film’s most damning suggestion is that the conviction didn’t simply involve mistaken identity — two men named Carlos, who knew and resembled each other and were both in the area of the crime, getting mixed up — but, in the film’s argument, required an almost willful insistence on turning a blind eye to what was known.

Adapting research that is, by now, hardly breaking news, Forbes has some solid strategies for making the material cinematic. Shooting in glossy wide-screen, he uses an effective blend of reconstructions and interviewees to take viewers through the night of the killing. Earlier in the film, he has people involved in the original trial, like a witness, Kevan Baker, and a prosecutor, Steve Schiwetz, discuss details of the case in a courtroom, and even playact versions of their words from the proceedings (the dialogue isn’t verbatim, judging from the trial transcript). A bow-tied, suspendered, haunted-looking medical examiner contributes to the ghostly ambience.

The Phantom
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. In theaters.

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