Prosecutors, defense attorneys and a state Supreme Court justice were criticized by Eastern District Judge Nicholas Garaufis who yesterday ordered the release of a man who had spent 23 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit.
"The case of William Lopez was rotten from day one," wrote Garaufis as he granted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Lopez v. Miller, 02-CV-3988.
Garaufis said Lopez was the victim of wrongdoing and he should be "released with the State's apology."
"This wrongdoing has ranged from an overzealous and deceitful trial prosecutor; to a series of indolent and ill-prepared defense attorneys; to a bewildering jury verdict; and to the incomprehensible" trial judge, Justice Carolyn Demarest, "who so regrettably failed time and time again to give meaningful consideration to the host of powerful arguments Lopez presented to her."
Prosecutors had charged that Lopez was one of two men who committed the murder/robbery of drug dealer Elvirn Surria on Aug. 31, 1989, in a Brooklyn crackhouse on Brighton Fifth Street. Lopez was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
But one witness, Janet Chapman, conceded she was binging on crack leading up to the shooting. Post-trial, Chapman submitted an affidavit saying her trial testimony was "pure fabrication" and "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. Even when I took the stand at trial, I lied about the deal and testified that no promises had been made to me."
Chapman, however, disappeared before Lopez's brother, Eugene, could get the affidavit notarized.
A second trial witness, a woman who worked in the crackhouse, couldn't identify Lopez in the courtroom and testified that the shooter was "tall, dark and Hispanic" about the same height as Lopez's counsel, William Lupo, who was six-foot-three. Lopez is five-foot-seven and is white or light-skinned.
"In short, the prosecution witness who was sober, face-to-face with the shooter, and had no motive to lie did not recognize Lopez when she saw him and described a perpetrator with physical characteristics bearing no resemblance to him," Garaufis said. "The other witness had been awake for two days straight, had smoked ten to twelve vials of crack in the two hours prior to the shooting, claimed to have seen everything while peeking through a partially ajar door in a different room, and provided inconsistent accounts of what she saw."
"This case was a toss-up at best," he said. "In short, the prosecution's evidence was flimsy to begin with and has since been reduced to rubble by facts arising after trial."