William Lopez served 23 and a half years in prison for a shotgun murder in Brooklyn that he did not commit. Witness accounts reported perpetrators who were Panamanian, and 6’2”; he was Puerto Rican, 5 ‘7”, and 100 pounds heavier than the description. When an eyewitness couldn’t identify his brother, the police got a crackhead who had been up for 24 hours and done 12 vials of drugs to identify William so they could make the arrest. Another witness could not identify him in court. His lawyer convinced him to grant permission not to call his alibis–he had been with his mother and mother-in-law at the time of the crime—telling him that the case against him was weak and that alibis were typically not believed, and that he didn’t need them. But the drug addict, who denied receiving a benefit in exchange for testimony yet miraculously was released from jail a couple of weeks after Bill was convicted, was believed, thus wrongfully convicting him. He lost several appeals and post-conviction motions, despite the presence of a lot of evidence and solid legal arguments that the federal judge later relied on in making the heroic decision to overturn the conviction.
Virtually all of William Lopez’s life was stolen from him. When he finally was released, he lived under the great mental strain of the possibility that he might be sent back to prison. Once the charges were finally dismissed against him, and his apartment was furnished to the point that he felt that he could entertain guests, he died just a few weeks later. His daughter was just 18 months old when Bill went to prison; she was 25 with her own children when he came out. He was never able to really re-connect with her. Similarly, he had a very hard time when it came to fully re-connecting with his immediate and extended family, struggling with being free and suffering great psychological after-effects of being wrongfully imprisoned. He only sporadically attended mental-health counseling, and didn’t give his asthma the proper attention. Ultimately, he died of a massive asthma attack. I can’t imagine what his mother, brother, daughter, and other family members experienced as a result of his wrongful imprisonment and untimely death after a mere 18 months of freedom.
Bill’s widow Alice is woman of tremendous strength. For her to meet Bill in the prison visiting room with no pre-existing relationship, do some research, believe in him, and then marry and stay with him for 19 years … there are no words for that. Truly, she was the light in his life; she was indeed a “gift to him,” as he asked her upon meeting her by accident in the visiting room.
I am so grateful that my Foundation was able to help exonerate Bill, thus at least giving him some freedom and clearing his name, and validating her belief in him against all the naysayers who periodically would make comments designed to make her abandon him. Bill’s exoneration was the culmination of the dream that I had when I first started the Foundation: freeing another innocent person. I feel so blessed to have been friends with Bill, sharing many firsts with him: his exoneration, anniversary of same, his birthday, the Fourth of July, etc. Here is a video of Bill and I celebrating his first Christmas:
Though I, too, along with all who knew him, was devastated by his untimely passing, I take solace in his year and a half of freedom, hopefully the best time of his life. Additionally, when he was released, unlike me, at least he was not alone. He had his wife, he had me, he had the reintegrative assistance the Foundation was able to give him, and he had some social interaction from sincere well wishers with whom I helped connect him.
Bill was conscious that his wrongful conviction was not isolated, that there were many others who were still wrongfully convicted, which is why he so selflessly gave of his time: attending my speaking engagements, doing media interviews, lobbying elected officials, traveling throughout New York and the country in order to carry out advocacy initiatives. If it had to do with fighting wrongful convictions, Bill was there. Here is a video of my paying tribute to William “Bill” Lopez:
How can the holes in the system that led to William Lopez’s wrongful conviction be plugged to prevent similar injustices from happening in the same way; and what are the takeaways?
Incentivized Witnessing, which is when a witness receives a benefit in exchange for testimony, has been the cause of wrongful convictions in 15% of the 330 DNA proven wrongful convictions. Reforms needed to prevent wrongful convictions caused by incentivized witnessing:
(1) External evidence corroboration requirement: Nobody should be convicted based solely on an informant; there should be at least one other piece of evidence
(2) Wearing of a wire/transmitting and recording device: This will help to ensure the authenticity of jailhouse confessions, in which strangers seem to freely admit committing serious crimes to people they have known merely for weeks or months
Bad Lawyering: This has been discussed previously in my thoughts on the Rodney Roberts case.
“The Security Brief” Takeaways:
Personal Level: Defendant: (1) No matter what, do not agree to allow your defense attorney not to call your alibi. (2) If you are wrongfully convicted, make going to the law library to study the law and work on your case the top priority. (3) As mentioned in the Rodney Roberts blog posting, stay on top of your lawyer, even on the appellate level. (4) Don’t give up, keep fighting. If William had given up, he would not have been exonerated. (5) Treat all ailments post-release seriously; Bill didn’t obtain proper treatment of his asthma.
Personal Level: Family Members of the Exonerated: (1) Put in extra effort to reconnect with your exonerated family member, and extra time—we never know how long any of us has to live. (2) If a family member is wrongfully convicted, support him or her and stay in that person’s life; outside support is critical in keeping up morale and fighting spirit … it is a lifeline. It will also make it easier to continue the relationship upon their release.
Personal Level: Police: (1) If the initial report mentions a perpetrator who is a different ethnicity than the defendant, and there are significant height and weight discrepancies between those descriptions, those are red flags.
Personal Level: Witness: (1) Do not falsely incriminate the defendant in order to obtain a benefit. Remember that the system is not foolproof and there is a possibility that the system could break down and the defendant could be wrongfully convicted.
Personal Level: Prosecutor: (1) If an identification is shaky because an in-court identification couldn’t be made, the ethnicity and/or height and/or weight doesn’t match the defendant, these are all red flags. Do not proceed as usual. (2) Do not try to preserve a conviction no matter what; a case should be scrutinized before each procedure. A second look can only help, not hurt. (3) If a conviction is overturned and there is clear evidence of innocence, dismiss the case; do not hold the prospect of re-incarceration over the defendant’s head.
Personal Level: Defense Attorney: (1) Call alibi witnesses. It is important for the jury to have a competing set of evidence to consider; do not simply rely on disproving the prosecution’s case by cross-examination: put on your own case!
Personal Level: Courts (1) Objectively consider appeals and post-conviction motions. The same way that Judge Garaufis analyzed the facts in Bill’s case could have and should have been done at the first appeal, and every proceeding after that. It should never have gotten to the point that he served 23 and a half years. Be on the look-out for red flags that a case may be a wrongful conviction. (2) Substantive justice is the goal, not proceduralisms. Judge Garaufis’s ruling on the case, made in the way that he did, was the difference between Bill at least obtaining a year and a half of freedom and clearing his name, and simply dying in prison as just another unknown ultimate victim of a wrongful conviction.