A Wrongful Conviction Robbed William Lopez of His Freedom, and Then His Life

October 8, 2014 Liliana Segura, The Intercept

Willy Lopez. Photo: Michael Kirby Smith/The New York Times/Redux

On a snowy evening in late March, just over a year after walking out of prison, where he had spent 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit, William Lopez entered a CVS in the Bronx and did something inexplicable. After paying for a prescription at the pharmacy counter, he paused to grab some other things—two sticks of Old Spice deodorant and some allergy medicine. Then, without paying, and in full view of a security guard, he walked out. Police were called and Lopez was arrested.

Lopez told his lawyer he had been preoccupied and took the items by accident. This actually made sense; navigating his new-found freedom posed a daily challenge for the 55-year-old Lopez, and he was often distracted. “His mind was not all there,” his lawyer recalls. “He was anxious about a lot of things.” But Jeff Deskovic, Lopez’s closest friend, heard a different explanation, one that disturbed him. To him, Lopez confessed, “he committed a petty theft to get reincarcerated.”

Deskovic was stunned. Just a few weeks earlier, The New York Times had published a long profile featuring both of them, showing Lopez moving on with his life—singing karaoke and bonding with other former New York inmates who had been released after wrongful convictions. “It’s kind of like we get together for treatment or something,” he told the Times, “like we have the same disease.” If casting himself as sick might have been a signal that Lopez was struggling more, not less, as time passed, no one read it that way. No one could have guessed he would sabotage his freedom by shoplifting thirty dollars’ worth of stuff.

Lopez was “in a dark place,” Deskovic says. And to a certain degree, he understood. Himself exonerated in 2006 after spending 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit, Deskovic had fought his own demons after being released. But not only did he survive, in 2012 he founded the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, with the mission of finding and freeing others like himself. Lopez was the organization’s first success story—Deskovic proudly walked him out of Brooklyn Supreme Court in January 2013. Then, he refused to leave his side. Deskovic knew too well how hard it is to emerge from prison to, as he puts it, “a world that you don’t belong to.” He wanted his foundation to ensure that new exonerees did not struggle as much as he had. So Deskovic tried to provide Lopez with all the things the state had not: a temporary apartment, some money to get by, and guidance on everything from cell phones to the subway. In the process, the two became fast friends. “I saw a lot of myself in him,” Deskovic says, “even though he was a lot older than me.”Lopez had no desire to go back to prison—quite the opposite. But he had become convinced that it was inevitable.

On the day he walked into that CVS, Deskovic says, Lopez had no desire to go back to prison — quite the opposite. But he had become convinced that it was inevitable and wanted to control how it happened. Lopez was convicted in 1990 of shooting and killing a drug dealer in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, despite a complete lack of credible evidence. The federal judge who released him called his case “rotten from day one,” lambasting prosecutors as “overzealous and deceitful,” and urged the state to apologize. Yet Lopez’s ordeal was far from over. Veteran Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes refused to drop the charges against Lopez, instead filing an appeal to reinstate his conviction. Never mind that “the prosecution’s evidence was flimsy to begin with,” as U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis wrote, “and has since been reduced to rubble by facts arising after trial.” Hynes wanted to send Lopez back to prison anyway.

Lopez had no desire to go back to prison—quite the opposite. But he had become convinced that it was inevitable.

So, even as Lopez celebrated his first year of freedom over lasagna and wine this past January, the fear of prison haunted him. As court dates in the appeal approached, “it started to play a larger and larger role in his mind,” Deskovic says, “to the point where he was mentally preparing himself to be reincarcerated.” Lopez’s arrest at CVS came just over a week before oral arguments were scheduled to start.

“There was an element of me that was angry at him,” Deskovic recalls. But he knew Lopez was driven by fear. Both men had seen people sent back to prison because prosecutors did not want to admit to a wrongful conviction. For Lopez, the dread was too much to handle. “He said, look, Jeff, If I’m gonna go back, why wait? Let me get used to it.” His original sentence had been 25-years-to life; he thought he would have a shot at getting out on parole. However irrational it seemed, for Lopez, it felt like a way to control his own destiny.

Lopez never went back to prison. His misdemeanor charge was reduced to a violation. Days later, just one week before oral arguments were set to begin, Brooklyn’s new district attorney, Kenneth Thompson, who had defeated Charles Hynes in a major electoral upset the previous fall, finally dropped the murder charges against Lopez. Pursuing his predecessor’s appeal, Thompson said, would be “contrary to the interest of justice.”

Lopez could finally exhale. He spent the spring and summer enjoying life, much of the time with Deskovic. They traveled to Portland, Oregon for the annual Innocence Network conference. They went to a Mets game. They goofed around at Rye Playland, an amusement park in Westchester County. (“Sharing another first with him!” Deskovic wrote on Facebook, under a photo of the pair at a mini golf course.) His relationship with his wife of nineteen years, Alice, whom he married in prison, seemed to improve, too. Lopez had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and Alice had struggled to cope. But, after the charges were dropped, “they kind of hit their stride,” Deskovic recalls. In July, Lopez posted a selfie, along with a photo of himself going kayaking. “Hello everyone,” he wrote. “These photos were taken less than a week ago under the wonderful blue skies.”

So it came as a shock when, less than two months later, Deskovic got a call from Alice at 3 o’clock in the morning. Lopez had suffered a massive, deadly asthma attack in the middle of the night. By the time Deskovic rushed to the hospital, his friend was already gone.

Jeff Deskovic and William Lopez sing at Karaoke Cave in downtown Manhattan in January.
Jeff Deskovic and William Lopez sing at Karaoke Cave in downtown Manhattan in January. Photo: Victor J. Blue/The New York Times/Redux

In March 2013, two months after William Lopez first walked out of Brooklyn Supreme Court, 58-year-old David Ranta left the same courthouse in a daze. He, too, had spent 23 years in prison, after being convicted on false evidence presented by a dirty NYPD detective for a crime he did not commit. “I’m overwhelmed,” he told reporters. “Right now, I feel like I’m under water, swimming.”

Less than two days later, he had a heart attack.

Unlike Lopez, Ranta recovered after surgery. Although he had no history of heart problems, his lawyer told reporters, “The accumulated trauma of being falsely convicted and incarcerated for 23 years, coupled with the intense emotions experienced surrounding his release, has had a profound impact on his health.”

Subsequent reports described Ranta “in good spirits.” But his hospitalization threw cold water on the feel-good media moment—it was a sudden, sobering glimpse at the real toll of a wrongful conviction. In an unusually rapid settlement, last February the City of New York agreed to pay Ranta $6.4 million in compensation. But there is no sum of money that will recover the health he sacrificed during the many years Hynes’ office kept him in prison despite evidence of his innocence. For him—and for the eleven New Yorkers exonerated since Kenneth Thompson took office—the mental and physical cost is impossible to measure.

Lopez suffered from asthma from the time he was a boy; perhaps it would have taken his life even if he had never gone to prison. But it’s not likely. Even without the trauma of a wrongful conviction, prison is like a debilitating illness; it literally speeds up the aging process. Both Lopez and Ranta were released in their 50s—hardly geriatric in the outside world, yet considered “elderly” by the New York State Department of Correction. A report funded by the Edgar and Margaret Sandman Fellowship in Aging and Health Law & Policy estimated that, physiologically, a 55-year-old person behind bars is equivalent to someone more than ten years older on the outside. Fifteen states classify prisoners aged 50 and older as elderly.Prison is like a debilitating illness; it literally speeds up the aging process.Those who go in with existing medical problems are especially worse off. Asthma, which is common, is aggravated by poor ventilation, toxic chemicals, and other environmental factors that make “prison air” harder to breathe. So it came as a surprise to hear from Alice Lopez that her husband’s asthma never posed a big problem in prison. “In all the years I went to visit him, he didn’t have an attack,” she says. While his medical care was always inadequate—”his teeth were rotten, because they didn’t take care of his teeth”—it was only when he got out that he started having problems breathing. “He couldn’t walk a block without losing his breath,” she recalled. Everywhere he went, he took a portable nebulizer. “If he left home without it, he was frantic.”

“The impact of being wrongly incarcerated does not show up when you’re in prison,” Deskovic explains. Much of the trauma manifests itself later, making it harder to find a home, get a job, or sustain relationships. “Psychological research of the wrongfully convicted shows that their years of imprisonment are profoundly scarring,” the Innocence Project reported in a 2009 study examining inadequate compensation for exonerees nationwide. At least 20 states provide no compensation for people who are wrongfully convicted. New York does, but on a case by case basis, and according to an amount determined in civil court. But as the Innocence Project notes, “After years of fighting to prove their innocence, exonerees need a safety net, not another long legal battle.” Counseling and medical care are among the most immediate services exonerees desperately need.

In the wake of his death, newspapers reported that Lopez died just days before his $124 million federal civil suit against the city was supposed to go to trial. That would have been cruel irony if it were accurate. “That Monday we were having our first conference with the judge for some preliminary matters,” his lawyer said. Like most exoneree lawsuits, Lopez’s would have taken a couple of years at least. What’s more, his lawyer added, the lawsuit is partly based on “a practice and pattern in the DA’s office to suppress evidence,” which meant the city was likely to put up a fight.

To Deskovic, this reality is far more cruel than what the headlines claimed. Had Lopez become financially stable more quickly, maybe he would have been less burdened. Maybe he would still be alive. “Why does it need to be this long drawn out process? It doesn’t seem fair or just to me,” he says. “It typically takes less than a year to wrongfully convict people. Why does it take so much longer to compensate them? Is it because the defendant in one case is a regular person and in the other defendant is the state?”

Lopez’s lawsuit will move forward, with any money going to his wife and daughter, Crystal, who was just a baby when her father was arrested. The sum will almost certainly be a tiny fraction of the $124 million.

Alice Lopez was distraught when I spoke to her on the phone, grief-stricken one moment and furious the next. “I bet you it was the stress,” she said about her husband’s sudden death. “I lived with it every day.” For almost her entire marriage, Alice had watched as Charles Hynes blocked attempts to revisit her husband’s case. Then he was finally freed, only to live every day in fear. Sometimes Lopez would wake up with nightmares. “He was worried that he was gonna go back to prison,” she said. “And the asthma was getting worse.”

“Once they dropped the charges, he relaxed a bit,” she added. “But at that point, his asthma was really bad.”

Alice Lopez holds Hynes “tremendously responsible” for what happened to her husband. “The state did this,” she said, through angry sobs. “The state did this to him. And they’re gonna pay.”

photo of William Lopez wearing a lifejacket at the side of a dock in June of 2014.
William Lopez in June, 2014. Photo: Facebook

The wake for William Lopez was held on September 24, at the Ortiz Funeral Home in the Bronx. Among the guests were Nicholas Garaufis, the judge who released him, and his wife. Friends who knew Lopez in prison as “Willie” also came, as well as fellow exonerees from New York. “They talked about how short his freedom had been and how unfair it was,” says Deskovic. “And how despite it all, Bill persevered.”

Deskovic, too, plans to persevere, continuing to focus on his work. “It’s what Bill would have wanted,” he says. In a particular sense, Lopez’s death is especially cruel for him.

I met Deskovic in 2006, soon after he was first released from prison, and got to know him through activist work, and some journalism projects. He could be awkward, sometimes difficult, and at times his loneliness and vulnerability were palpable. An in-depth 2007 profile in the New York Times described him as “a lost man.” This made his accomplishments over the years all the more impressive—from speaking engagements to a master’s degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to, eventually, his own foundation. Yet, in a sense, it was his friendship with Lopez that was the most heartening to see.

I caught a glimpse of it up close in March of last year, seven weeks after Lopez was released. We met at Deskovic’s office on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Lopez wore a suit and tie and was soft-spoken, with a raspy Bronx accent and the slight intensity of a man who has recently left prison after a long time. He and Deskovic took turns telling his story.

Lopez and Deskovic went to prison the same year. While they never crossed paths, Lopez eventually worked in the law library, which gave him access to law journals and newspapers, so he was able to keep up with the exonerations throughout the state. Deskovic stood out to him. He was impressed with his activism and his columns about criminal justice reform in the Westchester Guardian. When Deskovic used a portion of his $8.3 million false imprisonment settlement to start his foundation, “that’s when I knew he was in it for the long haul,” Lopez said. He called the office.

Soon they were talking every week. Deskovic immediately recognized Lopez’s case as having the classic hallmarks of a wrongful conviction: a dearth of physical evidence, a prosecutor who withheld exculpatory evidence, hapless defense attorneys, a hostile judge. Especially alarming was the fact that the trial had turned on the testimony of two eyewitnesses, one of whom had described the killer to police as a dark, black man taller than 6’3. (Lopez was short, with a lighter complexion). The other had been on a two-day crack binge at the time of the crime. Later she would tell a cellmate at Rikers Island that Lopez was not really the killer, according to the cellmate, who sent a letter describing the recantation to Lopez’s lawyers. The letter arrived after trial but before sentencing, yet his lawyers did nothing with it at the time.

Deskovic’s team eventually uncovered more evidence of Lopez’s innocence. Most significantly, they tracked down another witness to the crime, who had been since deported to the Dominican Republic. Via video feed, he testified at a hearing that he was “certain” Lopez was not the man he saw, describing the real killer as having dark black skin.“I knew what it was not to have anything. I knew what it was to be lonely.”Lopez’s exoneration was a major victory for the fledgling foundation. But in a sense, the real work started afterwards. “I knew what it was not to have anything,” Deskovic says. “I knew what it was to be lonely.” He took him out, introduced him to people, brought him over for meals at his house. When he went to prison, Lopez explained, he lost touch with a lot of old people, especially those who seemed to believe he might be guilty. “So your circle becomes extremely small.”

“But now I have Jeff,” he added. “And Jeff’s become my best friend.”

Deskovic came to rely on Lopez, too. He had never made friends easily. “I don’t always relate to everyone,” he says. “I enjoyed talking to him. I enjoyed spending time with him.” Even before losing his formative years to prison, he was always a bit socially challenged. It was one of the reasons he had become a suspect in his own case. After his high school classmate was raped and murdered in 1989, Deskovic “cried copiously” at her funeral, The New York Times reported, “though they were not close friends.” This aroused suspicion—even though his DNA did not match semen taken from her body, police became so convinced he was guilty, they coerced him into a false confession. Later, Deskovic would explain that his classmate’s death had upset him so much because she was one of the few kids in school who had not treated him unkindly.

On the day Lopez was released from prison, Deskovic took him shopping at Macy’s to buy clothes for the outside. It’s one of Deskovic’s favorite stories. That day in the office, they told the story together.

“He bought me my first set of clothes,” Lopez said.

“What was that like, by the way?” Jeff interjected.

“That was—to this moment I’m still trying to figure it out,” Lopez said. “That feeling, it was so huge.” Lopez walked out of Macy’s in a brand new outfit: “I wound up leaving my old duds in a trash can,” he confessed.

“Did you feel like a new man?” Deskovic asked, eagerly. “Did it feel different?”

“I was able to walk out a new man, with dungarees,” Lopez said, as Deskovic laughed.  “And colors! Colors, of course. Colors that I could never have, clothing I could never have.”

In prison, certain colored clothing is contraband. “It can have the most small amount,” he explained. But that day, he said, gesturing proudly, “I had blue jeans on, I had sneakers that had colors—all that. And it was great. To this moment, you know, I’m still excited about that.”

Deskovic recently brought up the visit to Macy’s again. He remembered how Lopez seemed to transform with every piece of drab prison clothing he replaced with something new. “You could see his face was changing,” he said.

“He ended up with a really, really big smile.”