Facing South

Ernie Lopez to face charges again

By A.C. Thompson, ProPublica

A Texas district attorney has decided to re-try an Amarillo man on charges that he sexually assaulted a six-month old girl, just days after the state's appeals court threw out his 2003 conviction.

ProPublica, PBS "Frontline," and NPR examined the case against Ernie Lopez last year, raising questions about the soundness of the medical evidence used against him. The appeals court ruled that Lopez had received ineffective counsel because his lawyer failed to challenge testimony by the medical examiner and other prosecution witnesses that the child’s injuries were caused by abuse.

The baby, Isis Vas, died shortly after the alleged assault.

The court left it up to the local prosecutor to decide whether Lopez would go free or face a second trial.

"The case is not going to get dismissed," Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims told ProPublica and PBS "Frontline." Sims represents the state's 47th Judicial District.

In a press conference Jan. 27, Sims made it clear that he will go forward with a second trial. "He's coming back on the exact same charge," said the prosecutor, according to the Amarillo Globe-News. "The case is at the exact same place any case would be right after it's been indicted by the grand jury."

In the years since the trial, Lopez's appellate attorneys have marshaled an array of experts who've challenged the notion that he sexual assaulted and violently shook Vas, pointing to medical evidence suggesting she may have been killed by a blood disorder brought on by an infection. The condition can mimic the symptoms of child abuse.

The case highlights a growing international debate about the soundness of the science used to prosecute cases of fatal child abuse and sexual assault. At least 23 people in the U.S. and Canada have been wrongly accused of killing children, and in California, Gov. Jerry Brown is currently considering granting clemency to a woman convicted of shaking her 7-week-old grandson.

(Image of Ernie Lopez is a still from a "Frontline" video.)

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Facing South
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