In 2003, a jury found Lopez guilty of sexually assaulting Isis Vas, a 6-month-old child he had been babysitting. During the trial, hospital employees and the medical examiner provided key prosecution testimony, describing injuries “consistent with” sexual assault. Vas died a day after being hospitalized. Lopez was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
Lopez insisted he hadn’t done anything to the child. Medical experts reviewed his case and challenged the forensics used. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Lopez’ conviction in 2012, ruling that he had received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. Lopez had served 9 years in prison. Dr. Michael Laposata, the top pathologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, reviewed hospital records and concluded that Vas had a severe blood disorder that caused bruising and bleeding on her body.
Lopez’s case, among others, have stirred a debate about the science used in child homicide and sexual assault cases. Two dozen instances of people accused of harming children were reviewed in the program, a collaboration between ProPublica, Frontline (PBS), and NPR.
Lopez was allowed to go home to Amarillo, Texas, but was restricted. He had to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and had a 10 p.m. curfew. He was forbidden from being around minors. The Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims almost immediately filed his intention to retry Lopez. Faced with the possibility of a second trial and conviction, Lopez agreed to a plea deal. He was afraid to return to prison and his constraints were lifted. Sims said he made the right choice in deciding to prosecute Lopez a second time, “I think he’s wound up pleading guilty to the charge that he committed,” Sims told NPR.
Lopez pled guilty to sexual assault. The prosecutor pointed to a polygraph, which is inadmissible in trials due to its possible inaccuracy, that Lopez was “deceptive”. Lopez’s former attorney, Heather Kirkwood, said that the plea bargain and the waiving of challenging the polygraph, “is what the DA requires you to sign in exchange for your freedom.”
“After nine years of false imprisonment, freedom has been pretty good to Ernie,” Kirkwood said. “He has a good job, he is surrounded by supportive friends and family, he is reunited with two of his children…”
Most veteran legal commentators said they would have encouraged Lopez to take the deal rather than risk a trial. “Unless the client said they would never plead guilty, I would say to this person they should take the deal,” said Stuart Hanlon, who recently handled the case of a man accused of killing a 3-month-old infant. Hanlon’s case (Kristian Aspelin) was eventually dropped and raised additional questions on the repeatedly forensically discredited shaken baby syndrome.
“There’s a presumption of guilt in [child] cases, not a presumption of innocence,” Hanlon said.