The Phantom opens with the audio from an utterly chilling 911 call. In it, we hear the final moments in the life of Wanda Lopez, a young mother who was stabbed to death one evening in 1983 while working at a gas station in Corpus Christie, Texas. You can hear the fear in her voice as the unknown assailant approaches with a knife, and soon after the call ends, we are shown the bloody aftermath. It’s an upsetting opening for a film, but a necessary one. Chronicled is a horrendous act that can only be described as pure evil, and which demands swift, firm justice. But what even is justice, and furthermore, what’s the proper way to go about obtaining it? These questions are just two of many posed by this disturbing documentary, which uses interviews, archival footage, and a keen investigative eye to dig into a story which some would say ended in true justice, while others would say has not ended at all — never will end, really — and for which justice is no longer a possibility.
Shortly after the murder, the authorities arrested Carlos DeLuna, a 24-year-old man who had prior run-ins with the law, and who the cops immediately pegged as the killer. Eyewitnesses agree that he’s the guilty party, but there’s no physical evidence to tie him to the crime. Still, it seems like an open an shut case if the authorities are to be believed. Before his day in court, DeLuna is presented with two options: take a guilty plea and a life sentence, or go to trial and risk being sentenced to death. DeLuna, in assurance of his innocence, takes the latter option, and even goes so far as to claim he knows exactly who committed the crime. He points the cops toward another man named Carlos Hernandez, but to no avail. According to the cops, this man, this phantom, simply does not exist. Yet despite what they claim, DeLuna maintains his innocence and sticks to his story, all the way up until his execution by lethal injection.
The Phantom reports on this dark tale in full detail for the front half of the film, and regardless of where you stand on DeLuna’s innocence or guilt, a strong case is made for the fallibility of humans on the whole. This translates into an equally strong case against use of the death penalty. Capital punishment is essentially legalized, state-sanctioned murder, offering a final, irrevocable “solution” to the problem of violent crime through the application of, hypocritically enough, an equally violent crime. The Phantom makes no bones about its editorial angle: under no circumstances should someone be killed for any reason, even if that reason is a perverted sense of justice.
The back half of the film is where things get truly heartbreaking. In the present day, fresh eyes take a look at DeLuna’s case, long after anything can be done to reverse his sentence, and what is found will chill you to your core.
In detangling the claims of law enforcement, listening to those who knew the parties involved, and looking into available legal documents, a clear line is drawn between what could be a huge miscarriage of justice and the forces of racism, poverty, corruption, and bureaucracy. Mixed together, these things create a huge potential for the truth to be buried, and for government-approved barbarism to be enacted upon innocent people. The beauty of the film is that whether or not you believe in DeLuna’s innocence, it makes it very clear that the evidence used to make his execution legal was far from complete, and that the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” was not even remotely met.
If you’ll allow me to editorialize for a second, I’d like to echo the sentiments of the film and state that the death penalty, as I see it, is barbaric, archaic, and in serious need of termination. Human error and bias are very real, very powerful tonics, and in the realm of justice they play much too heavy a role. Unfortunately, their influence is unavoidable. As such, there is no room for sentences which cannot be reversed. There are a lot of areas in which our justice system can be improved, but the abolishment of the death penalty is a fantastic, easily quantifiable place to start. And don’t even get me started on plea deals, which ONLY benefit guilty parties. Disagree? Watch The Phantom and get back to me.
Beyond its powers as documentary seeking to skewer injustice, it also smartly acts as a voice for both Wanda and Carlos, two folks whose lives were taken by others long before their time. It also gives voice to a community that feels much more terrorized by the state than by any of the crimes they see in the streets. These are voices that demand to be heard, especially here in 2021 where we’re finally making traction against racist policing and aggressive state power. Quite often those wanting to know more in the world of social justice are dismissed with a loaded invitation to “educate yourself.” Well, if you’re looking to do some self-education, The Phantom is a great place to start.
Directed by Patrick Forbes
Written by Patrick Forbes
Runtime: 82 minutes
In theaters July 2