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Brooklyn defendant, wrongly convicted of murder, released after 23 years

Federal Eastern District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis. File photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Eastern District Federal Judge Nicholas Garaufis on Friday announced the release of William Lopez, a prisoner wrongly charged and subsequently convicted of a 1989 robbery and murder.

Garaufis chided the prosecutors, the original presiding State Supreme Court justice and the defense attorneys. “The case of William Lopez was rotten from day one," Garaufis wrote in his order to release Lopez.

In 1989, someone shot and killed Elvrin Surria, a known drug dealer, in a crack house on Brighton Fifth Street in Brooklyn. Lopez was charged for this crime and convicted, and was then sentenced to a prison term of twenty-five years to life.

After his conviction, numerous trial witnesses were deemed unreliable. One witness, Janet Chapman, admitted that she was high on crack at the time of the shooting.

As reported in the New York Law Journal, in a post-trial affidavit, Chapman admitted that her trial testimony was “pure fabrication” and said, "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."

This affidavit was never notarized.

"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," said Garaufis.

Lopez unsuccessfully appealed his conviction to the Appellate Division, Second Department.

Lopez filed a habeas petition with the federal courts. Initially, Garaufis did not grant Lopez’s petition on the grounds that the filing was barred by the statute of limitations. Upon notice of Chapman’s affidavit, Garaufis reconsidered his original decision because of "credible and compelling showing that [Lopez] is actually innocent of the crime."

Lopez’s original trial attorney is deceased.

Richard W. Levitt and Yvonne Shivers of Levvitt & Kaizer represented Lopez in his appeal to the federal court.  Commenting on the case, Levitt said, “Mr. Lopez has been imprisoned for 25 years and has maintained his innocence from day one. We are all extremely gratified at the ruling and are relieved that justice prevailed.”  

Jerry Schmetterer, director of public information for the Brooklyn DA’s office, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, “We will appeal this decision.”

January 21, 2013 - 2:19pm


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