New York City — Almost like Leo Tolstoy’s Ivan Dmitrich Aksionov in the story “Бог правду видит, да не скоро скажет (Bog pravdu vidit da ne skoro skazhet — God sees the truth, but waits),” a man who served 23 years behind bars for a murder he didn’t commit has died suddenly from an asthma attack — just days before his multimillion dollar lawsuit was set to start.
William Lopez, a 55-year-old dad of one from the Bronx, New York, was freed from prison in January 2013 after he was exonerated for the 1989 shooting of a drug dealer. “[W]hat is far from close in the court’s view is that Lopez has been wronged by the State of New York,” Judge Nicolas Garaufis said early last year, citing in his 57-page decision, among other contributing factors, “an overzealous and deceitful trial prosecutor,” “a series of indolent and ill-prepared defense attorneys” and “a bewildering jury verdict.”
“In short, the prosecution’s evidence was flimsy to begin with and has since been reduced to rubble,” Judge Garaufis wrote. “The result is that a likely innocent man has been in prison for over 23 years. He should be released with the State’s apology.”
The Bronx man was originally found guilty of killing a drug dealer during an August 1989 altercation in Brooklyn and received a sentence of 25-years-to-life as a result. This past March, Brooklyn’s new district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, said his office “concluded that there is a sufficient possibility that Lopez is not guilty” and that pursuing an appeal after the conviction was overturned would be “contrary to the interest of justice”.
“My brother Bill was greatly bothered by the fact that his life was dramatically impacted by being wrongfully convicted, as well as his knowledge that many other wrongful convictions have taken place without any changes in the system,” Lopez’s brother, Eugene, told the New York Post this week.
His $124 million lawsuit for false imprisonment against the city was set to begin on Tuesday, and his heartbroken supporters said his death robbed him of a chance at justice.
“The case can’t go forward until we can get someone appointed as a representative to the estate, and that will probably be his wife Alice,” attorney Dennis Kelly said.
Jeffrey Deskovic, whose Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, helped connect Lopez with his legal team and highlight his case, called Lopez’s death “unfortunate and untimely”.
“We are proud of the significant role the foundation played in securing his freedom,” said Deskovic, whose foundation also provided Lopez with housing and helped with other issues. “Bill made it a priority to continue the fight against the wrongful convictions of others.”
He said Lopez had hoped to use any money he got from the lawsuit to travel, go to law school and set his wife up in business.
The 55-year-old Bronx man was freed in January 2013 after a judge threw out the murder conviction, calling the 1989 case “rotten from Day 1.”
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson dropped an appeal by his predecessor Charles Hynes.
The deceased’s wife, Alice, is expected to soon be appointed as a representative to Lopez’s estate where she may follow through with plans to seek $124 million over her husband’s incarceration. The two were married while Lopez was in prison and have a daughter who was only 14-months-old when the original sentence was served 25 years ago. Lopez had been re-building their relationship and spending time with his wife Alice, whom he had married in prison.
Ahead of his federal lawsuit against the city, he had instead relied on the generosity of friends.
But he had hoped to use any money from the lawsuit to enjoy his post-prison days with his family, as well as travel throughout the US and abroad.
He also had dreams of completing a college degree, going to law school and setting his wife up with a business, Deskovic said.
Lopez was released in January 2013 after always insisting he was innocent.
“It feels great to be back on Earth,” Lopez said after his release. “I’m looking forward to restoring my life as best as I can.”
His lawyers handed him a MetroCard for public transport and he said: ‘I’ve never seen one of these before, only on television, but I’ll learn how to use it.’
He had been convicted of the 1989 shooting of a suspected drug dealer named Elvirn Surria, who was gunned down after two men stormed a drug den in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.
No murder weapon or forensic evidence was found at the scene, so instead, the prosecution relied on the testimony of two witnesses who had been there.
One witness — a drug courier — gave a description that did not match Lopez, while the other had just finished a crack binge when the murder took place. She also secretly made an agreement with the prosecution to testify against Lopez in exchange for leniency in her own drug case.
“My brother Bill was greatly bothered by fact that his life was dramatically impacted by being wrongfully convicted, as well as his knowledge that many other wrongful conditions have taken place without any changes in the system,” his brother Eugene told the New York Post.