“The case of William Lopez began twenty-three years ago. It was rotten from day one.”
So begins U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis’ epic 95-page dissection of the justice system’s failures in wrongly arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning Lopez for the 1989 murder of a drug dealer in a crack house in Brooklyn. In his order, made public yesterday, Garaufis granted Lopez’s writ of habeas corpus and ordered him released within 60 days. He has served 22 years in prison, and is now 50 years old.
As recounted by the judge, the case against Lopez, which took place early in the tenure of long serving Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, was weak in the first place, relying on the word of one witness, a drug addicted prostitute who claimed after trial that she was coerced by police and prosecutors to testify against Lopez. “The prosecution’s evidence was flimsy to begin with and has since been reduced to rubble by facts arising after trial,” Garaufis wrote.
Hynes’ office, however, is going to appeal the ruling, and request that Lopez remain in prison.
The back story: On Aug. 31, 1989, two men walked into the basement of a crackhouse at 3053 Brighton Fifth St. in Brooklyn and robbed the drug dealer, Elvirn Surria. One of the men shot Surria twice with a double-barreled shotgun and he died. Lopez was arrested and later convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
One witness, Daisy Guadalupe Flores, claimed she came face-to-face and spoke with the shooter, but did not recognize Lopez when she saw him in the courtroom. In addition, she said the shooter was a “tall, dark, black” man taller than 6-foot-3. Lopez is about 5-foot-7 and has a light complexion.
The second witness, Janet Chapman, had smoked 10-to-12 vials of crack in the two hours prior to the shooting. She claimed not to have seen the shooting, but said she saw Lopez with a gun, heard a shot and heard a body fall. During the trial, she changed her story. She claimed she saw the shooting. After the trial, she changed her story a second time, saying Lopez was present at all, and she was intimidated into naming him by prosecutors.
Chapman first identified Lopez as a suspect after she was arrested for prostitution about a month after the murder. When she testified, she had been held at Rikers for five month. “There is conflicting evidence in the record regarding whether, at the time of her testimony, there was an outstanding deal between the prosecution and Chapman whereby Chapman would receive a sentence of time served if she testified against Lopez consistently with her audiotaped statement at the police department,” Garaufis writes.
In other words, Chapman may have had an incentive to name Lopez as the killer.
Indeed, about two months after the trial, Chapman gave Lopez’s brother a typewritten statement saying she had been intimidated by police and prosecutors into naming Lopez.
“I Jannet [sic] Chapman of sound mind and judgement [sic] do hereby confess that my testimony relevant to the trial of the People vs. William Lopez was not true,” she wrote. “William Lopez was not present at the scene of the crime. The D.A. forced me to testify on behalf of the state under due ress [sic] and the constant threat of going to jail if I did not cooperate with the D.A. office. Let me say again William Lopez is completely innocent he was never at the scene of the crime. “
In Lopez’s request, she typed a second letter and had it notarized. In that statement, she wrote: “William Lopez was not at the murder scene and never had anything to do with the murder.”
She made a third statement: “The district attorney’s representative promised to arrange my early release in exchange for a statement that I saw William Lopez carrying a shotgun-type weapon near the scene of a shooting murder. Although I never saw anything such as the assistant district attorney suggested, I readily agreed to make the statement because I wanted to get out of jail.”
She added: “I reached the point where I could no longer live with the lie constantly weighing down on my conscience. I must also reveal that the district attorney told me never to tell anyone that we cut a deal about my testimony in exchange for my freedom.”
Lopez had two alibi witnesses–his mother and sister in law–who would have testified that he was with them. But his trial attorney failed to call them to the witness stand.
The defense also failed to call Earline Cafield, who sent prosecutors a letter stating that Chapman had told her someone other than Lopez had killed Surria.
Despite all this, the courts rejected a series of appeals by Lopez. It would take many years before he finally caught a break.
The “final nail on the coffin” of the case, as his appellate lawyer Richard Levitt puts it, came in November when he and his law partner Yvonne Shivers were finally able to speak with the murder victim’s former partner-in-crime, Cesar Diaz, who had been deported to the Dominican Republic years earlier. Diaz told them that he saw the shooting and was certain that Lopez was not present.
“The police wanted to talk to him back in 1989, but he refused to cooperate,” Levitt says. “After he was deported, everyone kind of forgot about him. But we went through the old files, and found his name, and tracked him down through his former lawyer and his daughter. He didn’t know Lopez, and had no reason to lie.”
Garaufis also found that the state judge Carolyn Demarest’s decision to reject an earlier appeal by Lopez was “unreasonable.” “Her refusal to hold an evidentiary hearing to develop the central factual disputes underlying Lopez’s claim–without so much as an explanation–is baffling, not to mention unfortunate because the two alibi witnesses are now no longer available to testify,” he wrote.
For now, Garaufis ordered prosectors to either try Lopez again or agree to his release within 60 days. It remains unclear whether Hynes office will appeal the ruling.
“He’s lost a lot of time, so he’s obviously very grateful to the judge” Levitt says.
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment.