After 23 Years In Prison, Sentence Dismissed For Man Convicted Of Brighton Beach Murder

Source: SalFalko/Flickr

A federal judge threw out the conviction of a man sentenced for a 1989 murder in Brighton Beach after already serving 23 years of his sentence, with the judge calling the case “rotten from day one.”

Village Voice has a great rundown:

On Aug. 31, 1989, two men walked into the basement of a crackhouse at 3053 Brighton Fifth St. in Brooklyn and robbed the drug dealer, Elvirn Surria. One of the men shot Surria twice with a double-barreled shotgun and he died. [William] Lopez was arrested and later convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
One witness, Daisy Guadalupe Flores, claimed she came face-to-face and spoke with the shooter, but did not recognize Lopez when she saw him in the courtroom. In addition, she said the shooter was a “tall, dark, black” man taller than 6-foot-3. Lopez is about 5-foot-7 and has a light complexion.
The second witness, Janet Chapman, had smoked 10-to-12 vials of crack in the two hours prior to the shooting. She claimed not to have seen the shooting, but said she saw Lopez with a gun, heard a shot and heard a body fall. During the trial, she changed her story. She claimed she saw the shooting. After the trial, she changed her story a second time, saying Lopez was present at all, and she was intimidated into naming him by prosecutors.
Chapman first identified Lopez as a suspect after she was arrested for prostitution about a month after the murder. When she testified, she had been held at Rikers for five month. “There is conflicting evidence in the record regarding whether, at the time of her testimony, there was an outstanding deal between the prosecution and Chapman whereby Chapman would receive a sentence of time served if she testified against Lopez consistently with her audiotaped statement at the police department,” Garaufis writes.
In other words, Chapman may have had an incentive to name Lopez as the killer.
Indeed, about two months after the trial, Chapman gave Lopez’s brother a typewritten statement saying she had been intimidated by police and prosecutors into naming Lopez.

The prosecutorial misdeeds go on from there, with Chapman recanting three times over the years and even saying that the district attorney “told me never to tell anyone that we cut a deal about my testimony in exchange for my freedom.”

It wasn’t just the prosecutors who bungled the case. Lopez’s trial lawyer failed to call his alibi witnesses, as well as a witness who claimed to know who the real killer was.

The judge, Nicholas Garaufis, has ordered that Lopez be tried again – even though the alibi witnesses are no longer available to testify – or that he be released within 60 days.

The decision is a blow to Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes, who oversaw the case early in his tenure. The New York Times writes:

It is the latest official rebuke of the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which has been faulted repeatedly by judges for misconduct that has put innocent people behind bars.
A spokesman for Charles J. Hynes, the longtime district attorney who is preparing to run for re-election this year, declined to comment in detail, saying only that the office was reviewing the matter.
… 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.

Hynes is appealing Judge Garaufis’ decision.

New York Law Journal has more on the case.


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