Another Questionable Conviction?

Ernie Lopez, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a baby and became the focus of a ProPublica investigation into mishandled child death cases, was released from prison after the state appeals court overturned his conviction.
Wed March 7, 2012 12:13 am
Frontline | Screengrab

Ernie Lopez walked out of Amarillo detention center Friday, more than a month after a state appeals court threw out his sexual assault conviction.

Lopez was convicted in 2003 of aggravated sexual assault of a child and sentenced to sixty years. In 2000, six-month old Isis Vas stopped breathing while Lopez was babysitting her, and he called 911. When Isis arrived in the ER, "[d]octors and nurses saw marks on her face, bruises on her body and blood in the girl's vagina," NPR's Joseph Shapiro recounted. She was taken off life support the next day, and the forensic pathologist concluded Isis died of "multiple blunt force injuries."

But a meticulous investigation by NPR, Frontline, and ProPublica into mishandled child deaths last summer honed in on Lopez's case, concluding that medical evidence pointed towards his wrongful conviction. In the days prior to Isis's death, Lopez had expressed concern that the baby might be ill due to her lethargy and lack of appetite. He also noted the marks on her face appeared "almost in a pattern." Experts now believe that Isis suffered from a rare clotting disorder that can cause bruising and bleeding that mimics child abuse.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out Lopez's conviction in January, ruling that at his trial his attorneys provided him with "deficient" legal counsel for not calling medical experts to dispute the prosecution's version of events.

Lopez's case is the latest in a string of high-profile questionable convictions in Texas. Psychologist Edwin Basham, contracted by Child Protective Services to determine if Lopez's children were at risk while he was awaiting trial, found no warning signs that Lopez might be abusive. "He was caught up in this legal system that was determined to convict somebody," Basham told ProPublica. "They had a dead baby. Somebody was going to get convicted of it. And he was nominated."

NPR's Joseph Shapiro was on hand to document Lopez's tearful reunion with his family after nine years in prison. His daughter, now sixteen, rushed to hug him.

"I woke up every day in that prison saying 'This is not who I am, and they cannot make me somebody that I'm not, they cannot do it,'" Lopez, now 41, told Shapiro as he left the prison.

Lopez's legal woes are not over, however, as Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims plans to retry his case this fall, the Amarillo Globe News reported. This time around, he could possibly be tried for first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

For now, Lopez is focusing on his first taste of life outside prison in nine years, as Shaprio reported:

On his first weekend home, Lopez enjoyed little things he couldn't do in prison. He hugged and kissed his three children. He ate a traditional Christmas dinner with his mother's tamales. There was a tall Christmas tree in the living room, with blinking white lights and presents. Family and friends had decorated every room in his parents' house for holidays he had missed. Lopez took off his prison-issued sneakers and socks and walked barefoot on the carpet. And when it started to snow, he went outside, spread his arms open and lifted this face to the sky.

Watch two videos chronicling Lopez's reunion with his family:

Watch Ernie Lopez, Released on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Watch Ernie Lopez Arrives Home on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

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