In a murder case where the only evidence is the word of an eyewitness, and that eyewitness is a drug addict who gives inconsistent statements about what she saw, it would seem prudent for prosecutors to proceed with caution. Unfortunately for William Lopez, who spent half his life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, the Brooklyn DA’s office fought for his conviction despite their shaky evidence.
Following Lopez’s conviction, the state’s key witness, Janice Chapman, said she was intimidated by prosecutors into naming Lopez even though he wasn’t actually at the site of the murder. She said the prosecutors involved in the case held the threat of prison over her head because she was arrested for prostitution and incarcerated at the time the DA’s office took the statement in which she fingered Lopez. In a written statement she made after Lopez was convicted, she said,
The district attorney’s representative promised to arrange my early release in exchange for a statement that I saw William Lopez carrying a shotgun-type weapon near the scene of a shooting murder. Although I never saw anything such as the assistant district attorney suggested, I readily agreed to make the statement because I wanted to get out of jail.
The US Supreme Court said in the 1972 case Giglio v. United States that prosecutors must reveal when they have offered witnesses leniency in their personal criminal matters in exchange for testimony, in part to protect against exactly this kind of scenario.
A federal judge threw out Lopez’s conviction in January, calling the prosecutors in the case “overzealous and deceitful” and the case itself “rotten from day one.”The prosecution’s evidence was flimsy to begin with, and has since been reduced to rubble by facts arising after trial… Lopez has been wronged by the State of New York.
A New York Times article about the case highlights other instances where convictions have been overturned due to the failure of the Brooklyn DA’s office to abide by its constitutional obligations to disclose evidence under DA Hynes.In 2010, another federal judge called the office’s conduct “shameful” for the way it handled the case of Jabbar Collins, who later had his murder conviction vacated. In 2011, the office dismissed rape charges against four men after it was revealed that the prosecution against them had continued even after the victim recanted. The office started its own unit to investigate claims of innocence; that unit overturned another case last year.
The case of Jabbar Collins is discussed in a another post.