By Jessica Dye
NEW YORK, Jan 23 (Reuters) - A man imprisoned for more than
two decades was freed on bail Wednesday, after a federal judge last week ruled that he was "likely innocent" of the 1989
crackhouse murder for which he was convicted.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Guy Mangano ordered William
Lopez to be released on his own recognizance while the Brooklyn
district attorney's office conducts "further investigation" into
newly discovered eyewitness testimony that could exonerate
Lopez, a spokesman for the DA's office said.
Lopez has served 23 years of his 25-years-to-life sentence
for the murder of Elvirn Surria.
An attorney for Lopez, Richard Levitt, said his client was
"deeply thankful for all those who kept faith with him during
these many years."
"He is looking forward to taking a walk around the block as
a free man, breaking bread with his family and friends, getting
a good night's sleep and seeing how the world has changed these
last 23 years," Levitt said in a statement.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn last week
granted Lopez's habeas corpus petition, saying he was "likely
innocent" and calling the case against him "rotten from day
The judge ordered the Brooklyn district attorney's office to
free Lopez within 60 days or show that substantial steps had
been taken to retry him for the murder.
On Wednesday morning, during a brief hearing, Garaufis
directed prosecutors to arrange for a bail hearing for Lopez
within 36 hours. The bail hearing had to take place in state
court, where the murder indictment against Lopez was filed,
Lopez, who appeared before Garaufis wearing a white buttoned
shirt and khaki pants, was taken to the state criminal
courthouse blocks away to await his bail hearing, while family
members who came to watch the proceedings cried and hugged one
Lopez was charged with murdering a drug dealer, Elvirn
Surria, in a Brooklyn crackhouse in 1989. Without a murder
weapon or forensic evidence to link Lopez to the crime, Brooklyn
prosecutors relied largely on eyewitness testimony to convict
Lopez in 1990, Garaufis's ruling said.
After he mounted a series of unsuccessful appeals through
the state courts, Lopez filed a habeas corpus petition in
Brooklyn federal court in 2002.
Garaufis held two hearings on Lopez's petition. During one,
Lopez's lawyers presented video testimony from Cesar Diaz, a man
living in the Dominican Republic who said he had witnessed the
murders, the ruling said. Diaz said he was "certain" that Lopez
was not one of two intruders he saw shoot Surria, the ruling
The Brooklyn district attorney's office said it intends to
appeal Garaufis's ruling. In a statement, Jerry Schmetterer,
director of public information for the DA's office said, "Our
Conviction Integrity Unit will conduct further investigation of
this case, including the credibility of a witness whose first
statement about the case was made more than 23 years after the
murder. If necessary, the People will re-try the defendant on
the pending murder charges."
The case is Lopez v. Miller, U.S. District Court for the
Eastern District of New York, No. 02-02-3988.
For Lopez: Richard Levitt and Yvonne Shivers of Levitt &
For the state: Howard Goodman and Phyllis Mintz of the Kings
County District Attorney's Office.
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