William Lopez dreamt he would one day live the American Dream, despite the 23 years he spent in prison wrongly convicted of a murder he did not commit. His dream ended this weekend when he suddenly died from complications of an asthma attack. Imagine spending 23 years in prison for a crime you did not commit and dying days before a federal lawsuit against the city to collect money to compensate for the many years of dehumanization you had suffered from. This included the painful breakup of his family and the separation from his 14 month old daughter Crystal.
I knew Willie from my days in Sing Sing, where I was a political prisoner of the war on drugs serving a 15-to-life sentence under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. When I received executive clemency from Governor George Pataki in 1997 after serving 12 years I returned to the free world. I began my new life as an activist hoping to help others I left behind to escape the gulags of the United States.
In 2012, while working as Manager of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, I received a letter from Willie asking me for help and strongly professing his innocence. He told me he had received a hearing that could lead to overturning his conviction. In 2013, at the age of 53, William Lopez walked out of federal court as a free man when Judge Nicholas Garaufi threw out his murder conviction. In his decision Judge Garaufis said, "What is far from close in the court's view is that Lopez has been wronged by the State of New York. 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 Justice Demarest, who so regrettably failed time and time again to give meaningful consideration to the host of powerful arguments Lopez presented to her. The result is that a likely innocent man has been in prison for over twenty-three years. He should be released with the State's apology." You can read the full decision here.
One of his strongest supporters who helped him regain his freedom was Jeffrey Deskovic who had also been exonerated after serving 16 years for a murder he did not commit. When released from prison he founded the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, an organization created with commitment to preventing wrongful convictions. Deskovic went all out and helped Willie re-enter society, helping him making the tough transition.
Although he was free, Charles Hynes, the then Brooklyn District Attorney decided to appeal his case. Fortunately for Willie, sometime later the appeal was dropped by the newly elected Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson. This opened the door for William Lopez to receive compensation from the city in his federal civil suit, which was supposed to start today. Willie struggled to survive, hoping winning his lawsuit would bring him some happiness in his life. He wanted to travel, buy a car and drive cross country, and help others that faced a similar fate such as his.
But because of a cruel twist of fate his 20 or so months of freedom had come to an end, dashing William Lopez's American Dream. He is survived by his wife Alice, brother Eugene and his daughter Crystal. A funeral service is being held for William Lopez on Wednesday September 23, 2014 at 5pm at Ortiz Funeral Home. For more information please contact the Jeff Deskovic Foundation for Justice.