A Texas case examined in a Pro Publica/PBS Frontline report on autopsies and forensics has been overturned by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court's ruling in Ex Parte Lopez is available in Adobe .pdf format.
Pro Publica reports, "Texas Court Voids Conviction in Child Death Case." It's by by A.C. Thompson.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today set aside the conviction of Ernie Lopez, an Amarillo man found guilty in 2003 of sexually assaulting six-month-old Isis Vas. The baby died shortly after the purported attack.
Lopez has been serving a term of 60 years in Texas prison for the crime. But a joint reporting effort by ProPublica, NPR, and PBS "Frontline" last year explored the possibility that Lopez might be innocent.
In the years since Lopez's trial, a host of physicians have reviewed the medical evidence in the case, raising questions about the soundness of his conviction. Many of these specialists have come to believe that Vas actually died of natural causes, and that Lopez never assaulted the child at all.
During a tearful prison interview, the inmate insisted he wasn’t a sex offender and killer. "That's not my character," he said. "That's not who I am."
"We are very pleased with the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision to set aside Ernie’s conviction," said one of Lopez’s attorneys, Heather Kirkwood, in an email. "The Texas courts deserve ample recognition for the careful review of the record that led to today’s decision."
The Lopez case highlights the growing international controversy about the reliability of the science used to prosecute cases of fatal child abuse and sexual assault. In Canada and the U.S. at least 23 people have been wrongly accused of killing children based on questionable medical evidence, and California Gov. Jerry Brown is currently considering commuting the sentence of a grandmother convicted of fatally shaking her 7-week-old grandson.
The Texas court didn’t rule on Lopez’s culpability and did not set him free. Instead, the court concluded that Lopez received ineffective legal representation during his trial because his lawyers failed to challenge the prosecution’s medical evidence.
"Judge Tosses Conviction Of Texas Man Accused Of Sexually Assaulting Infant," is the NPR report by Joseph Shapiro.
The NPR, Frontline and ProPublica investigation found nearly two dozen cases in the United States and Canada where people were convicted of killing children, but were later cleared when it turned out the accusations were based on flawed or biased work by forensic pathologists and other medical professionals.
Lopez's current lawyers argue that his case should get counted as one of those false convictions. They say Isis Vas died, not because she was beaten and sexually assaulted, but because of an undetected blood disorder that can create bruises and bleeding that mimic child abuse. But no witnesses were called to make that case at the original trial.
On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court for criminal cases, ruled that Lopez had received "deficient representation" and that had such witnesses testified on behalf of Lopez, there was a "reasonable probability the jury would not have convicted him."
There is an added risk for Lopez in a new trial. Originally, Lopez was indicted on child sexual assault and murder charges. Prosecutors chose to go to trial on the sexual assault case first, and got a conviction. Jurors only learned that the child had died when it was time for them to determine Lopez's prison sentence. A new trial could also include the murder charge, and prosecutors could seek the death penalty.
Lopez's attorneys are ready to present medical experts who say there was evidence that Isis Vas suffered from a series of problems that suggested she had a rare blood disorder. They will argue that this is consistent with what Lopez told paramedics, doctors and the hospital: That the baby had been sick, lethargic and eaten little from the time her mother brought her to the Lopez house three days earlier.
The Amarillo Globe-News reports, "Sims: Will retry sex assault case." It's by Bobby Cervantes.
Potter County’s chief prosecutor said Thursday he will retry an Amarillo man whose sexual assault conviction was overturned Wednesday.
47th District Attorney Randall Sims said Ernie Lopez, 41, will be brought back to Potter County within the month to face the 2001 indictment for aggravated sexual assault of a child.
“He’s coming back on the exact charge,” he said. “The case is at the same place any case would be right after it’s been indicted by the grand jury.”
A grand jury in 2001 also indicted Lopez on a capital murder charge, which prosecutors decided to drop in lieu of the sexual assault charge.
Sims did not comment on whether he would pursue additional charges in the case.
“Other than that, I can’t tell you what’s going to transpire when he comes back,” he said
The Pro Publica series on questionalbe forensics is, "Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America." The PBS Frontline report is also available. Additional coverage of the series is available. Related posts are in the forensics index.