Exonerated Brooklyn Man Got Just Eight Months of Freedom After 23 Years in Prison



In 1989 William Lopez was convicted of killing Elvirn Surria, a Brooklyn crack dealer, with a shotgun while robbing him. Since there was no physical evidence linking Lopez to the murder, the Kings County District Attorney's Office relied on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. One was a courier for Surria whose description of the gunman did not match Lopez and who could not point him out in court. The other was a crack addict facing a drug charge who agreed to testify against Lopez in exchange for lenient treatment and later recanted.

Last January, responding to a habeas corpus petition filed by Lopez, a federal judge overturned his conviction, calling the prosecutor "overzealous and deceitful," the defense attorneys "indolent and ill prepared," the trial judge's decisions "incomprehensible," and the jury's verdict "bewildering." Lopez was released from prison a week later. On Saturday morning, The New York Post reports, he died of an asthma attack at the age of 55, having enjoyed eight months of freedom after serving 23 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Lopez had filed a lawsuit against New York City, seeking $124 million in damages. The trial was supposed to begin this week. 

There seem to have been more than a few trumped-up convictions under Charles Hynes, the long-serving Brooklyn district attorney who was succeeded this year by Kenneth P. Thompson. Thompson established a Conviction Review Unit that is examining about 100 cases, including 57 based on work by a legendary detective, Louis Scarcella, "whose methods have come under attack" (as The New York Times delicately puts it). Summarizing half a dozen exonerations resulting from reviews under Thompson, the Times reports that two were "based on DNA evidence," three were based on the unreliability of testimony by "a crack-addicted witness who was frequently used by Mr. Scarcella," and "the sixth was based on a receipt and police reports showing that the defendant was, as he had always claimed, in Florida during the murder."