In 1989 New York City was rife with crack houses, crime was at an all-time high that didn't peak and then subside until four years later, and Ed Koch, the three-term mayor who ran on a law and order platform, was serving his last year in office.
It was a time of public outcry about crime, political posturing over a losing drug war, and media hyperbole. Which is cause and which is effect is debatable. Maybe it doesn't matter, because in the end, when the sweep is over and the outrage subsides, stasis sets in with the belief that justice has been done.
By the time William Lopez was released from prison on January 23, 2013, he had already spent 23 1/2 years locked up for a crime he didn't commit. Knowing he was innocent was hardly comforting, but he tried to make the best of a rotten situation. He earned a paralegal certificate through a correspondence course and became a law clerk in the prison facilities where served.
The months stretched to years as he worked on proving his innocence, a Sisyphean task designed to be difficult and burdensome, but Lopez refused to give up. Eventually, Lopez was able to get a judge to look at his case again ... and again ... and then again, each time meeting another barrier. And while his uphill battle continued, he remained in prison,
The first breakthrough came in 2003. In an extremely unusual ruling, the federal judge who previously had dismissed his case procedurally because it was late, reversed himself and agreed to give Lopez an opportunity to prove his innocence. The judge assigned Lopez a court-appointed attorney and an investigator, and the investigation continued on. Seven years later Lopez contacted The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice for investigative assistance. The not-for-profit organization, founded by exoneree Jeffrey Deskovic , was established to help free the wrongfully imprisoned. But it was still a long shot.
Lopez's conviction was based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. One could not identify Lopez in court and the other was a crack addict who changed her story several times but at trial claimed that she saw Lopez commit the murder. Truth was the latter witness had been given leniency for her testimony and walked out of prison two weeks later. That detail had been withheld from both defendant and jury. But there was another witness, one who had not testified and had since been deported to the Dominican Republic. The Deskovic Foundation utilized its ties to a law firm in the Dominican Republic as a starting point and ultimately was able to locate the witness and obtain a sworn statement from him. The witness also testified in court via Skype at an evidentiary hearing.
The judge reviewing the case agreed that Lopez had been denied effective legal counsel, that there was sufficient evidence of innocence, and that he should be exonerated "with apology." You would think that would be the end of the nightmare. But it's not.
When you're accused of murder and linked to drugs, prosecutors and the cops are more than happy to add each case to the statistics that imply their success. No matter the thin evidence, the lack of competent counsel or the prosecutorial misconduct. They got their man, and if you ask, they'll tell you there's no doubt that the defendant is guilty.