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The Hardest Cases: When Children Die, Justice Can Be Elusive

A joint investigation by ProPublica, PBS “Frontline” and NPR looks into nearly two dozen cases in which people were accused of killing children based on flawed forensic opinions and then later cleared.

Ernie Lopez is currently serving a 60-year sentence for harming six-month-old Isis Vas, who later died. (Photo courtesy of PBS FRONTLINE)

This story was produced in collaboration with PBS "Frontline" and NPR.

Listen to NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered (check local listings). And watch "The Child Cases" on PBS "Frontline" tonight (check local listings).

Her name was Isis Charm Vas and at 6 months old she was a slight child -- fifth percentile in height and weight.

When the ambulance sped her to Northwest Texas Hospital on a Saturday morning in October 2000, doctors and nurses feared that someone had done something awful to her delicate little body.

A constellation of bruises stretched across her pale skin. CT scans showed blood pooling on her brain and swelling. Her vagina was bleeding, as well. The damage was so severe that her body's vital organs were shutting down.

Less than 24 hours later, Isis died.

If you have any information about possible wrongful prosecutions in child death cases, please contact reporter A.C. Thompson at A.C.Thompson@propublica.org.

An autopsy bolstered the initial suspicions that she'd been abused. Dr. Joni McClain, a forensic pathologist, ruled Isis' death a homicide and said the baby had been sexually violated. McClain would later describe it as a "classic" case of blunt force trauma, the type of damage often done by a beating.

The police investigation that followed was constructed almost entirely from medical evidence. In the end, prosecutors indicted one of the child's babysitters: Ernie Lopez.

Today, Lopez is serving a 60-year prison term for sexual assault and is still facing capital murder charges.

But in the years since Lopez was sent to the penitentiary, a growing body of evidence has emerged suggesting that McClain and the hospital staffers were wrong about what happened to Isis -- and that her death was not the result of a criminal attack.

If Lopez is ultimately exonerated, his case will not be unique. An investigation by ProPublica, PBS "Frontline" and NPR has found that medical examiners and coroners have repeatedly mishandled cases of infant and child deaths, helping to put innocent people behind bars.

We analyzed nearly two dozen cases in the United States and Canada in which people have been accused of killing children based on flawed or biased work by forensic pathologists, and then later cleared.

Some spent years in prison before courts overturned their convictions. In 2004, San Diego prosecutors moved to dismiss charges against a man who'd been imprisoned for two decades for murdering his girlfriend's son.

Others were freed more swiftly but endured hardships nonetheless. An El Paso, Texas, jury acquitted a woman of killing her child in 2010, but after spending 22 months in the county jail, she still had to wage a legal battle to regain custody of her other children.

The questionable prosecutions identified in our investigation had common elements:

Often, authorities had little to go on other than autopsy findings. Many of the doctors who conducted post-mortem examinations failed to consult specialists in childhood injuries or ailments, or to thoroughly review medical records that could have affected their conclusions. In several cases, forensic pathologists worked so closely with authorities, they effectively became agents of law enforcement, rather than objective arbiters of scientific evidence.

Some experts in the field say worries about mistakes in child death cases are overstated. "The vast majority of forensic pathologists recognize a child abuse case when they see it, and it's not because they want to persecute people," said Dr. Mary Case, chief medical examiner for four Missouri counties including St. Louis County.

But others say the criminal justice system has yet to confront the full scope of the problem, and that, as a result, more innocent people may be serving time for crimes they didn't commit. "I think it's time to look at these cases again," said Dr. Michael Laposata, chief pathologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, adding that this could "result in the liberation of a number of falsely accused people."

Lopez, 40, a soft-spoken man with a slight twang, still can't quite believe he may spend the rest of his life locked up for something he says he didn't do: harming the infant he nicknamed "Little Bird."

"Sometimes I wake up and I look at my cell and man, it just hits me: You know, I'm in prison," he said in an interview. "I never thought I would be in prison, never in a hundred years."

* * *

Isis Charm Vas (Source: District Court of Potter County, Texas)At 10:55 a.m. on Oct. 28, 2000, Ernie Lopez grabbed the cordless phone at his house and punched in the numbers 9-1-1.

"What's going on? What's going on?" asked the operator.

"OK, my ... We're babysitting this little baby girl for Dr. Vas," said Lopez, according to a recording and transcript of the call. A spider, he explained, had bitten Isis a week earlier, "and she's been acting funny ever since."

Lopez and his wife, DeAnn, regularly babysat Isis and her two older siblings, both toddlers. The children's mother, Veronica Vas, was a physician at a nearby hospital, and on that morning she was on her way to Detroit for the weekend.

Lopez, a burly, gregarious man who worked as a mechanic, was looking after the children while DeAnn went shopping for a dress for the annual Lopez family Christmas photo, scheduled to be taken that afternoon. He had been watching the Vas children for 40 minutes when he called for an ambulance.

"Is she breathing right now?" asked the operator.

"No, she's not breathing on her own. I was fixing to put her in a bath and she stopped breathing and I have been trying to get her CPR for the last two to three minutes," Lopez replied, stress permeating his voice.

On the phone, Lopez described his efforts to revive Isis. "I tried to slap her on the bottom and slap her on the face and she won't wake up. She won't do nothing." Blood spilled from her mouth. "She was bit about 14 times. ... She's got all these bruises around her neck and on her face where she was bitten." After the ambulance arrived at his modest one-story home, Lopez rode with Isis to the emergency room.

Police detectives, alerted by hospital staffers, quickly showed up at the hospital to question Lopez. He wept as he spoke to the officers.

They weren't the only people asking questions. One of Lopez's brothers pulled him into a hospital bathroom and confronted him. Had he attacked the infant? "I said, 'No, I didn't do this,'" recalled Lopez. "Why would I do it?"

By the time Isis died a day later, police had arrested Lopez.

The body of the baby, wrapped in a colorful blanket, was transported to Dallas, where McClain performed the autopsy. To the doctor, the evidence pointed to sexual assault and murder.

"It is my opinion that Isis Charm Vas, a 6-month-old white female, died as the result of multiple blunt force injuries," McClain wrote in the autopsy report. (McClain declined to comment for this story.)

For police, solving the case was an exercise in elimination. Lopez was the only adult present when Isis collapsed. That made him the sole suspect. Who else could have done it?

In October 2001, a grand jury indicted Lopez on charges of capital murder and sexually assaulting a young child.

* * *

Justice Stephen Goudge conducted an extensive inquiry into Ontario's forensic pathology system. (Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline)Forensic pathologists like McClain play a critical role at the intersection of medicine and law enforcement. Employed by medical examiners and coroners' offices, they are called in to figure out how people have died. They scrutinize corpses, searching for clues. Was the person murdered? Was it suicide? An accidental overdose? A heart attack?

Their findings carry enormous weight within the criminal justice system. As anyone who's watched an episode of "CSI" knows, if a forensic pathologist says it's a homicide, police will soon be hunting for the killer.

Though depicted as glamorous and high-tech on TV, the field of death investigation is plagued by chronic underfunding, a shortage of specialists, and a lack of national standards, according to a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences.

Many of the nation's morgues are staffed by doctors who aren't board-certified in forensic pathology. To become certified, doctors need an extra year of training and must pass a day-long test. Earlier this year, an investigation by ProPublica, "Frontline" and NPR showed that more than 100 physicians without board certification were working at the country's busiest coroner and medical examiner offices.

Even for the best educated and trained doctors, performing an autopsy on a baby or young child poses particular technical challenges. Their developing bodies function differently. It's why doctors who treat living children -- pediatricians -- receive different training than those who deal with adults.

"Adults are generally tougher and harder to kill then a small child. Particularly an infant," said Dr. Jon Thogmartin, chief medical examiner for Pasco and Pinellas counties in Florida, a jurisdiction that includes St. Petersburg. "So, you're looking for very subtle signs of trauma or pressure, or small amounts of bleeding that could potentially cause a kid severe illness or death."

When toddlers and infants die, autopsies frequently play a primary role in the police investigation. Adults often kill one another in public places where witnesses might catch glimpses of the violence. They tend to use guns or knives, weapons that leave obvious and distinct wounds. When adults kill children, they are more likely to use their hands and to commit their crimes out of view of anyone else.

"Often there are only two pieces of evidence," said Justice Stephen Goudge, a Canadian judge who conducted an extensive inquiry into Ontario's forensic pathology system. "The first: who had care of the infant in the hours leading up to the death, normally a parent or caretaker. And secondly, the forensic pathology, which attempts to give an opinion on what the cause of death was." If the autopsy findings are flawed, the judge said, "then the risk of a miscarriage of justice is high."

Thogmartin said the charged emotions inevitably triggered by a child's death add another layer of complexity. Forensic pathologists, in his view, can get "caught up in the anger, the emotion, the despair." Their mindset can become prosecutorial, Thogmartin said, until every child death is a "homicide until proven otherwise." When he took on his current job as chief medical examiner in 2000, he stressed the need for neutrality to his staff.

"As a forensic pathologist, I don't testify for the state. I don't testify for the defense. I testify for the decedent," he said. "They are not able to talk, so I try to talk for them."

Thogmartin overruled the autopsy conclusions in two child death cases handled by his predecessors that he said might have been colored by bias. In one case, a man was four years into a 10-year prison term for killing his infant son. In the other, a father was facing trial on murder charges for killing his 7-month-old daughter.

When Thogmartin sifted through the autopsy files and tissue samples, he was shocked: He saw no evidence of violence. In his opinion, the children had died of natural causes.

Both men were subsequently cleared by the courts, but even the one exonerated before standing trial suffered life changing consequences, Thogmartin said. "That unfortunate gentleman had his life turned upside down. ... His life was destroyed."

* * *

Dr. Jon Thogmartin, chief medical examiner for Pasco and Pinellas counties in Florida (Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline)Ernie Lopez was born in Amarillo, a dust-swept, blue-collar city in the northern reaches of Texas and spent most of his life there.

His father, Ernest Sr., toiled as a diesel mechanic at a Caterpillar dealership. Lopez, too, was fascinated by motors. At 13 or 14, he replaced a wrecked engine cylinder on a Kawasaki dirt bike all by himself. He moved on to American muscle cars, spending weekends screaming across the asphalt at the drag strip on the edge of town and weekday evenings tuning his Ford Mustang.

His mother, Rosa, operated a daycare center for neighborhood children out of the family home. Growing up, Lopez said, "we had kids all the time in the house."

By the time he turned 30, Lopez had three children of his own, two with DeAnn and one from an earlier relationship.

Lopez and DeAnn lived across the street from the house he'd been raised in, where his mom and dad still lived. His brother Eddie lived next door to their parents. His brother Sabian lived a few minutes down the road. The whole tribe often converged at Rosa and Ernest Sr.'s home for barbeques and birthdays and holidays, the grandchildren scampering up the big willow tree out front.

Lopez "was a good dad, a very good dad, a very good uncle to my kids and to Sabian's kids," said Eddie, a heavily muscled truck driver.

Lopez worked at Hand Industrial, a company that manufactures and repairs heavy factory equipment. "At work, Ernie stood out as a very gentle person," said Becky Hand, the firm's accountant and office manager, in a court affidavit. "He would joke with the other male employees, but he was softer and kinder."

In the days before Isis died, Hand said, Lopez had asked her for advice because the baby "hadn't been eating and was lethargic," and he was worried that she might be seriously ill. Lopez was also alarmed by the marks on her face. "He said they started above one eyebrow and were almost in a pattern. ... Ernie said the bumps were strange and weren't like anything he'd seen before," Hand stated.

After Isis' death, the child protection system swung into action, tapping psychologist Edwin Basham to determine if Lopez should be separated from his own children while awaiting trial. Basham figures he has done around 4,000 such evaluations, including some on people who've admitted to killing children. Child abusers, in his experience, "have difficulty coping with relationships, with stress. They lose their temper. They blow up."

In Lopez, he saw none of the normal warning signs -- Lopez had no previous criminal record, no history of domestic dysfunction, no issues with drugs or alcohol. "He seemed to be a very concerned, family-focused kind of person," recalled Basham, who wrote in his 2001 report that he could find "no signs of serious psychological problems."

Lopez was confident he'd be cleared by the courts because he had done nothing wrong, Basham said. But after interviewing Lopez, the psychologist had an uneasy feeling. "He was caught up in this legal system that was determined to convict somebody," Basham said. "They had a dead baby. Somebody was going to get convicted of it. And he was nominated."

* * *

Veronica Vas, with her children, from left, Alex, Isis and Emily (Source: District Court of Potter County, Texas)The trial of Ernie Lopez began in April 2003.

Potter County prosecutors decided to try him only on the sexual assault charge; the capital murder charge was left pending, allowing prosecutors to try him for that offense at any time.

There were no witnesses to the alleged attack, and Lopez had not confessed, so the prosecution's case relied heavily on medical testimony. Over five days, a stream of doctors and nurses who had treated Isis at the hospital told the jury she must have been brutalized.

Dr. Eric Levy, who treated Isis in the hospital's pediatric intensive care unit, said the child's symptoms indicated she had been the victim of a violent attack. Looking at a photo of the baby's lower half, Levy pointed out bruise after bruise.

Michelle Gorday, a veteran nurse who specialized in sexual assault examinations, said it was one of the worst cases she'd witnessed in her 20-year career. "I've never ... ever seen that kind of trauma," she testified.

The defense called no expert witnesses. Basham, the psychologist, was surprised Lopez's attorneys never asked him to testify. "I would have said that there wasn't a basis to suggest that he would be someone likely to have harmed a child," Basham said.

Lopez chose to take the stand, insisting he had never hurt Isis and testifying about the strange ailments that shadowed the last days of her life.

With each day, more health issues cropped up, he said. Blood spots speckled Isis' left eye. Congestion made it hard for her to breathe, prompting the Lopezes to treat the baby with a nebulizer. When Lopez changed her soiled diapers, her fecal matter, he testified, was "black" and "really thick and sticky."

DeAnn Lopez corroborated her husband's testimony. When Isis' mother brought the baby to the Lopez home on Oct. 25, the child had bumps on her head and bruises on her chest, DeAnn told the jury. The infant was "lethargic" and reluctant to drink from her bottle, DeAnn said, consuming about six ounces of liquid over the span of several days, far less than a healthy 6-month-old would have.

Veronica Vas, Isis' mother, disputed the Lopezes' account, maintaining that Isis was only mildly ill before she died. "She had about six little bumps on the left side of her forehead, but those were already healing up," Vas testified. The baby's energy level was "quite normal."

Addressing the jury, Assistant District Attorney J. Patrick Murphy summed up the case by saying, "Common sense tells you who had to have done it. ... This child could not fight back. This child could not consent. This child could do nothing but lay there." The jury found Lopez guilty.

McClain, the medical examiner, testified in the sentencing phase of the trial, telling the jury she had ruled Isis' death a homicide and detailing what she discovered during the autopsy. The baby, she said, suffered a "laceration of the vagina area" and injuries to her brain.

"The brain is covered by a thick fibrous covering called the dura," the forensic pathologist testified. "There was a hemorrhage beneath this dura, on top of the brain." Such bleeding, explained the doctor, can occur when a baby's brain is buffeted by a powerful impact.

"In this case," McClain continued, "we know the head has struck something, because we've got bruising in that area."

Scrutinizing Isis' eye tissue under a microscope, McClain said, she had discovered more bleeding, which she interpreted as another indicator of violent head trauma. Seven other doctors in her office had reviewed the case and concurred with her findings, McClain added.

Lopez was sentenced to 60 years.

Stunned, he turned to his brother Eddie. "It's like we're at my funeral," he said, "but I'm still alive."

* * *

Dr. Michael Laposata, chief pathologist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline)Heather Kirkwood was an unlikely candidate to take on Lopez's case. She had spent the bulk of her career litigating anti-trust cases for the Federal Trade Commission, and she lives 1,700 miles away in Seattle.

After learning about Lopez from a relative living in Texas, Kirkwood agreed to represent him. For her, Isis' death presented a fascinating jigsaw puzzle to solve. Lopez struck her as "a nice young man" and the "circumstances of the case seemed weird as hell."

"My gut sense kept telling me this was a sick baby who was neglected," she said.

After taking on Lopez's case, Kirkwood started contacting physicians in hopes of getting them to analyze Isis' medical history. She sent a stack of documents to Dr. Richard Soderstrom, an emeritus professor of gynecology at the University of Washington. As an adviser to the Food and Drug Administration, Soderstrom served on a panel that studied the accuracy and safety of the colposcope, a device that can be used to take photos of injuries in sexual assault exams.

Isis Vas had been examined using a colposcope. But as Soderstrom stared at the photos taken of her, he wasn't convinced that she'd been violated. "I couldn't see anything that would say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there was penetration," he said.

Soderstrom gave a sworn affidavit stating that, in his opinion, the photos did not suggest there had been sexual abuse. No semen or pubic hair had been found on Isis' body. Further, Soderstrom said, the lack of injuries to the child's inner thighs, labia major, and hymen, was "inconsistent with abuse."

Kirkwood also approached Dr. Michael Laposata, the chief pathologist for Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and a leading expert on blood disorders. At Laposata's sprawling lab, white-coated technologists run some 6 million tests per year, feeding a never-ending line of blood samples into an array of machines.

Looking at the file on Isis, Laposata quickly homed in on the tests run on her blood while she was in the hospital. To gauge how the blood is clotting, physicians typically begin with a pair of basic tests called the PT and PTT. In Isis, the "PT and PTT were markedly abnormal," Laposata said, adding that other tests also suggested a coagulation disorder. Where McClain had seen a "classic" case of blunt force trauma, Laposata saw something entirely different, a "classic picture" of Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation, a potentially lethal condition that can cause bleeding from sufferers' every orifice.

Based on the baby's "dark, tarry stools," elevated white blood cell count, and abnormal liver function tests, Laposata concluded, "something had to be going on for days" -- long before the 40 minutes Lopez was alone with the baby.

An infection could have led to DIC, and, eventually, to a fatal collapse, Laposata said. DIC could also explain Isis' bruises and the bumps on her head that Lopez and others believed were spider bites, he added.

"The reality is when your blood is so thin, when you're so unable to make a clot, you can just develop bruises and they can be spontaneous," he said.

In an interview, Laposata pulled up a PowerPoint presentation he uses to teach students how hard it is to distinguish child abuse from blood-clotting afflictions. One slide featured photos of two small children. Both of their faces were splotched with bruises. One had been battered. The other had idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a condition that causes the blood to quit making platelets.

Without a host of lab tests, Laposata said, it would be impossible to figure out which little boy needed medical help and which one needed child protective services.

* * *

Melonie Ware (Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline)There is a growing awareness among medical practitioners of "mimics": ailments that can cause the kind of bruising and bleeding once assumed to be telltale indicators of child abuse. A 2006 textbook on head injuries in children listed literally dozens of afflictions -- including some fairly common illnesses -- that can produce hemorrhaging in the brain.

This is just one way that the science of how children die has evolved in recent years. The most notable -- and controversial -- example of this is the intense debate over "shaken baby syndrome," which has played out in scientific journals and mainstream outlets such as the New York Times Magazine.

Based on studies dating back to the 1960s, many forensic pathologists -- as well as other physicians -- came to believe that a signature trio of symptoms provided definitive proof that someone had violently shaken a child. Under the theory, certain patterns of bleeding and swelling of the brain, and hemorrhages of the retinas came to be seen as conclusive evidence that a child had been assaulted with terrible force, even if there were no other signs of trauma.

But many experts now view the diagnosis with increasing skepticism. In Canada and Britain, large-scale official reviews have uncovered at least nine cases in which people may have been wrongly convicted based on the shaken-baby theory.

Dr. Case, the Missouri medical examiner, said the controversy is a "sideshow": Typically, children who've been shaken have also suffered other serious injuries from being battered. "Yes, there is a scientific debate," she said. "I personally believe that you can shake a child and kill it."

The thinking of other doctors has undergone a radical change. Dr. Patrick Barnes, a pediatric radiologist at Stanford University, was a key prosecution witness in what is arguably the most famous shaken-baby case of all, the trial of Louise Woodward. Woodward was a 19-year-old nanny charged in 1997 with shaking an 8-month-old baby to death, hitting his head and causing fatal bleeding. With Barnes' help, the jury found Woodward guilty of second-degree murder. (She was ultimately released after serving less than a year in prison, when a judge reduced her charge to manslaughter.)

Barnes said he wouldn't give the same testimony today. There's been a "revolution" in the understanding of head injuries in the past decade, in part due to advances in MRI brain scanning technology, he said. "We started realizing there were a number of medical conditions that can affect a baby's brain and look like the findings that we used to attribute to shaken baby syndrome or child abuse," Barnes said.

The case of Melonie Ware shows how profoundly a closer reading of medical evidence can affect the outcome of a child death investigation.

Ware was convicted in 2004 of murdering a 9-month-old boy she was babysitting, based in large part on the testimony of a local forensic pathologist, Dr. Gerald Gowitt. Gowitt said someone shook the child violently, damaging his brain, and slammed his head, causing three near-identical bruises beneath the scalp.

Ware was sentenced to a life term in a Georgia prison.

After an extensive legal battle, a judge granted Ware a new trial in 2009. This time, her attorneys produced evidence from the baby's medical records overlooked in her first trial: Hospital staffers had tried multiple times to insert a probe into the child's skull, as part of their attempt to save his life. The bruises under the baby's scalp, experts for Ware testified, were likely caused by those failed attempts.

Two prominent physicians testified that shaking had nothing to do with the boy's demise. The child had died from sickle cell anemia, said the doctors, both specialists in the disease, which is known to cause cerebral bleeding.

Gowitt declined repeated requests for comment on the case.

The jury acquitted Ware, but her life is not the same. Her husband spent more than $700,000 on her defense, selling off and mortgaging real estate acquired over decades.

"We had to move in with my parents," said Ware, 38. "It's just messed us up totally."

After she was freed from prison, Ware, who had worked as a day-care provider, was rejected for job after job. "I even tried McDonald's," she recalled. She thinks potential employers were frightened off by her time in jail.

The stain of the case lingers. To this day, Ware's mug shot appears on the Georgia Department of Corrections' website, which lists her as still incarcerated.

* * *

(Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline)In prosecuting Ernie Lopez, law enforcement officials focused almost exclusively on Isis Vas' final hours.

Lopez's legal team looked back further, however, marshaling evidence suggesting that the baby's deteriorating condition might have been overlooked by her mother.

Veronica Vas had moved to Amarillo in 1995 to do her residency at a branch of Texas Tech University. She began dating a doctor, with whom she had two children. Then, in a subsequent relationship, Vas, 32, became pregnant with Isis. By all accounts, Isis' father wasn't involved in her life.

Court records from a custody dispute between Vas and the father of her older children, as well as statements submitted as part of the Lopez case, depict the Vas household as chaotic in the period surrounding Isis' birth.

Dena Ammons, a nurse who worked closely with Vas during her residency, said Vas changed during her pregnancy with Isis. She began showing up late for work, her hair matted and uncombed. In a sworn statement, Ammons said that Vas drank and smoked throughout the pregnancy.

Lorrie Word worked for Vas as a live-in nanny from August 1999 until the summer of 2000, caring for Isis from the time she was born. Word said in an affidavit that, on one occasion, she returned from her night off to find Isis alone in a darkened house, crying and soaked with urine. Vas would later say she only left the child for 10 minutes. Soon after the incident, Word quit her job.

A family therapist who visited the Vas home in 2000 as part of the custody dispute described it as "extremely cluttered." "It was difficult to walk across the floor because of blankets, clothes, and toys," she wrote in a report submitted to a family court. "The home appeared extraordinarily disorganized."

Vas declined repeated requests for comment for this story. She has moved to Michigan, where the state medical board recently suspended her medical license due to alcohol abuse.

During Lopez's trial, Vas testified that in the months after Word quit she came to depend on the Lopez family to help care for her children.

According to Ernie Lopez, the day before Isis went into cardiac arrest he became so worried about the baby's health that he asked Vas for a note authorizing him or his wife to take the child to the doctor.

Vas didn't give him the note before leaving town for the weekend, he recalled in an interview. "Isis will be fine," Lopez said Vas told him.

* * *

Ernie Lopez (Photo courtesy of PBS Frontline) By 2009, the new medical evidence gathered by Heather Kirkwood had captured the attention of the courts. After she filed an appeal, a habeas corpus petition, a judge granted Lopez a new evidentiary hearing. It represented a step toward possibly overturning his conviction.

The hearing lasted nearly twice as long as the original trial. This time, seven doctors testified -- for free -- on Lopez's behalf.

Kirkwood also had the chance to question Joni McClain, the forensic pathologist who ruled Isis Vas' death a homicide. McClain stood by her conclusion that Isis was killed by violence, not disease.

But she acknowledged that she'd paid little attention to Isis' blood-clotting tests and had only a vague understanding of their possible significance. "Did you look at these lab tests before reaching your conclusions?" Kirkwood asked. "I don't think I did beforehand because it was such a clear case of blunt force injury," McClain replied.

Kirkwood read through the results of five tests, starting with the PT and PTT, which measure blood coagulation in seconds.

McClain admitted the tests went beyond her expertise as they can only be run on the living. "I don't get into a PT, PTT. It's a useless test after someone's dead," the doctor said.

Four other doctors testified for the state, saying Isis had died from blunt-force injuries, not a bleeding disorder. "This is a pattern of injury that we see with trauma," said Randell Alexander, a pediatrician who heads the child abuse division at the University of Florida's College of Medicine, in Jacksonville. "This is not a bleeding death."

McClain also argued that it was possible for head injuries to cause the type of clotting problems Isis had suffered.

In an interview, Laposata agreed head trauma can have that effect but said Isis' lab results were too abnormal to have resulted from an attack that allegedly occurred about an hour before her hospitalization.

It would be nearly a year before Potter County Judge Dick Alcala issued his opinion on the case. In August 2010, Alcala made a recommendation to the state's highest criminal court that Lopez's conviction should be overturned. He found that Lopez's original attorneys had failed to "fully investigate the medical issues of whether a sexual assault had occurred" and "the cause of death of the child." If they had investigated properly, Alcala wrote, the jury might not have convicted Lopez.

The judge rejected Lopez's claim of innocence, which would have required a conclusion that "no reasonable juror would have convicted him" -- a high legal standard.

The case is now in the hands of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. It has the power to throw out Lopez's conviction and free him.

Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims continues to fight Lopez's appeal. In an interview, Sims said he could not discuss the case in detail because it is still ongoing. (He also said he had discouraged state witnesses, including the medical examiner, from speaking with us.) Sims said he thought Lopez had received a fair trial.

"The jury found him guilty," he said. "And we're defending that conviction."

There is no timetable for the appeals court's decision. Even if it overturns Lopez's conviction, he could remain tangled up in the criminal justice system for years. Sims could refile charges and try him a second time.

* * *

Tammy Marquardt (Joe Shapiro/NPR)The United States is not the only country in which forensic pathologists have had difficulty investigating child deaths. Canada was rocked by a scandal that affected at least 20 criminal cases, sending officials there on a search for systemic solutions to prevent future miscarriages of justice.

The controversy centered on the work of Dr. Charles Smith, once one of Canada's leading forensic pathologists. Based at a children's hospital in Toronto, Smith specialized in performing autopsies in grisly child deaths and, over a span of 24 years, he testified regularly for prosecutors.

But by 2005, the province's chief coroner had become openly skeptical of Smith's findings and assigned five other forensic pathologists to conduct a top-to-bottom review of his work in 45 child death cases.

The results of the study were devastating: In 20 of the cases, the reviewers disagreed with Smith's autopsy reports or court testimony. Over and over, Smith cited evidence of murder where there was none, they found. (Smith would not respond to our questions.)

In a dozen cases, people were wrongly accused of killing children in Ontario based on Smith's work or testimony. Tammy Marquardt, who was sentenced to life in prison for murdering her son, spent 14 years behind bars before being exonerated.

In prison, she said, the other inmates despised her. "A baby killer would basically get the living daylights beaten out of them," she said. "A baby killer is classified as one of the lowest on the totem pole." The courts reversed her conviction earlier this year.

The Ontario chief coroner's internal review led to an official inquiry by Justice Goudge, who set out nearly 170 recommendations for remaking the province's broken death-investigation system.

Forensic pathologists who conducted child autopsies should be formally trained and board-certified, Goudge said. They should read all relevant medical records. While forensic pathologists often toil in a certain amount of isolation, Goudge recommended a more collaborative approach, saying they should consult with specialists in other medical disciplines and have other doctors review their autopsy findings.

Bias was a major concern for Goudge. In Ontario there was a mantra among forensic pathologists, he said in an interview: "Think Dirty." When doctors dealt with cases involving children who had died unexpectedly, they assumed parents or caregivers had murdered them. That outlook, the justice said, skewed the conclusions they reached in the autopsy suite. "The scientist's objective is to 'think truth' not 'think dirty,'" he said.

Many of Goudge's suggestions are being implemented in Ontario. But policy-makers in the United States have largely ignored them. There are no national standards or regulations regarding forensic pathology and practices vary widely from place to place.

Barnes, the Stanford pediatric radiologist, said it was imperative for the U.S. system to absorb the lessons from Ontario. "We need to establish the new standards at all levels, just like what is happening in Canada," he said.

* * *

After Lopez was bused off to prison, his mother would look out her kitchen window and stare across the street at his former home, her mind turning back to the day everything changed. "It was too much to bear," Rosa remembered. So she and Ernest Sr. sold their house and moved to a place on the outskirts of Amarillo. Eddie and his wife did the same.

Lopez now lives in a cell in the Connally Unit, a maximum-security lock-up about 600 miles away in the scrubby countryside south of San Antonio. Every three or four months his parents make the 10-hour drive to the facility, a journey that costs about $1,000 between gas and hotels. "When we go, we have an enthusiasm, 'We're going to go see him,' you know, 'We're going to touch him and hold him,'" Rosa said. "And then on our way back it's really emotionally hard because we have to leave him there."

Lopez's imprisonment gnaws at Eddie, who weeps repeatedly when talking about his brother, tears streaking across his broad face. "Him being away this whole time, it's like a part of me is dead, because we were that close," Eddie said.

The two men are separated in age by 11 months, but these days Ernie looks years older. His close-cropped hair, once brown, has turned the color of iron.

Behind the prison's thick cinderblock walls, Lopez struggles to hold onto what's left of his old life. Every Tuesday evening he calls his children collect, offering fatherly guidance despite the circumstances. He communicates less frequently with DeAnn, who divorced him and remarried after he was sent away. (DeAnn has participated in his appeal, giving a sworn statement that corroborated his account of the day Isis died. She declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Because of the seriousness of his offense, Lopez is barred from working a prison job. He fills his mental space with the written word, reading more than 50 books last year alone. He's a big fan of the Western pulp novelist Louis L'Amour and an avid student of the Bible, which he's been through eight times.

Many men discover religion while incarcerated, but Lopez was devout long before he found himself in handcuffs. The night before he allegedly attacked Isis, he was at his church, acting in a play about good and evil.

Today, nearly 11 years after Isis died, Lopez continues to maintain -- emphatically -- that he never harmed her.

"Why should they believe that I'm innocent?" he asked during a two-hour interview. "Well, because that's not my character. That's not who I am."

Thinking back to that Saturday, Lopez paused and went silent, anguish filling his face. He exhaled heavily. "Her heart was beating a hundred miles an hour and she wasn't breathing. I put my ear to her chest, and I heard her heart just beating, just racing and ..." His head tilted downward and he stared at the floor. "She was there and then she wasn't there."

Lopez's voice grew quiet as the words trickled out slowly. "So many times," he said, "I think about what I could have done different to help her more."

Additional reporting contributed by Catherine Upin of PBS "Frontline." Lisa Schwartz, Sergio Hernandez and Liz Day contributed research to this story.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

OK wow this makes a whole lot of sense when you think about it. Wow.

http://www.total-privacy.se.tc

robin robertson

June 28, 2011, 3:03 p.m.

I love this man with all my heart!!!! He is the dad of my 16 year old. I want Ernie to come home and get to be a dad to her!! He would never do something like this!! He is the best dad. I love you Ernie and miss you! I hope you and Nikki are back together soon.

When there is an emotionally charged case such as a child’s death remaining neutral is extremely difficult.  The examiner most often works hand in hand with the are law enforcement.  It would seem to me in an emotionally charged case it would make sense to remove the local medical examiner from the case and send it to another jurisdiction.  Even possibly having a review of evidence meeting much like mortality reviews for hospital deaths.  We will never be able to completely eliminate bias of all types but the more impediments we can put in the way the better the judicial system will become.

Why isn’t the neglect from the Mother of Isis part of the investigation.
She is a doctor? And she still has her children…something is wrong with the justice system.
I do hope that the pro bono lawyer and medical examiners are able to prove him innocent.
I had bruises all over me growing up…it looked like by parents beat me and threw me around….This was definitely not the case.
Spider bites on an infant…Doctors and nurses know how poisonous spider bites are and on an infant.  Uh!  Some professionals are not as smart as they would like others to believe.
God speed Ernie.

ProPublica is doing amazing work.  However, in some respects you are focusing on the wrong thing.  The law does not work.  Yes, I know.  It seems incredible that someone would say that out loud.  And no I am not an anrarchist.

It isn’t that life is unfair, or that the wicked sometimes go free.  It is that the Common Man underwrites its most heinous failures and no one is accountable.

The legal system puts so much emphasis on Process—it is even a kind of mantra which can be heard in the hallowed halls of places like the Kennedy School of Government—that as long as the process is followed then the outcome must be correct.  And unfortunately that outcome, regardless of correctness, is almost immutable.  Furthermore, all the key players in the system, except the defense, which always has less resources, are not unlike participants in a Milgram experiment.

Who studies and fixes the the failures of the Process?  No one really, except the people who suffer by it.  The people who underwrite its failures, like the people in your story, and so many others.  They suffer greatly.  More than you or I could bear.  And in a society which is supposed to value individual responsibility no one is held accountable.  Those carrying out “Justice” hold immunity.

A basic tenet of the criminal justice system is to punish those who damage our society, after all prosecuting a crime is not a civil action which can be resolved by an adjustment of equity between the parties.  Now consider any serial killer, rapist, murderer, whatever, and ask yourself, “Who harms society more?”.  An individual identified as a criminal, whose actions are limited to a relatively small population?  Or, a legal process, an institution in any town USA, and all the people involved, which puts even 1 innocent person in jail?

I respectfully suggest you are focusing on too narrow an issue.

/J

I am moved and angered that someone who was most likely not guilty and was under-represented in his trial cannot get a new and fair trial. In light of current medical reviews and the shoddy methods said to have been used by his accusers, it appears that justice was not done.

This man was railroaded by a system that needs to place blame on someone (the easiest target), guilty or not, so that the case may be wrapped up in a neat package! Never mind giving him a fair trial or finding experts with unbiased opinions. Our legal system is well and truly broken.

I agree with Abby K. that the child’s mother should have been investigated more carefully. She apparently did not care properly for her children and drank heavily (even during pregnancy). She is the one that should be questioned. How long was the baby sick? Apparently longer than just that day that she died.

I hope you get the chance you need to prove your innocence Ernie!

My son-in-law is one of Ernie’s brothers, and I have known and loved Ernie for many years.  It was devastating to the entire family when he was convicted!  He wasn’t even on trial for murder, only the sexual assault, but when the prosecutor made sure the jury knew that the baby had died, of course they were going to give him an outrageous sentence.  All the evidence uncovered by Heather, the pro-bono attorney who has worked many years trying to assimilate expert testimony to prove his innocence, proves that there was no sexual assault, and certainly no homicide.  In the habeas hearing in Sept., 2009, many experts testified as such, all of them also pro-bono.  They came from as far away as England because they believed in his innocence.  Definitely he was railroaded!  if you are poor and Hispanic in Amarillo, TX, and have court-appointed attorneys, there is no justice.  The prosecutors just can’t admit that Ernie didn’t get a fair trial—in fact, they decided that he was guilty the first time he was questioned at the hospital, and never looked at any evidence that might not go along with their “theory”.  I hope the justices of the Court of Appeals do not share the prejudices of the Amarillo “justice” system and overturn his conviction.  His youngest daughter was also 6 mos old at the time of Isis’ death, and has grown up without a father.  It is time to let this wonderful father come home to his family.

Nichole Trussell

June 28, 2011, 11:24 p.m.

It is sad to me that the courts were so eager to close the case they would allow the rest of someone’s life to be violated in such a manner. To read that the examiner didnt see the need to look at blood work and such is just disgusting. To be able to find someone guilty BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT…means you seek ALL avenues to prove in all certainty…they didnt do that…Its a shame…horrible shame…It is AWFUL that Isis passed…it is just as awful to tear the Lopez family apart in such a manner over evidence that would have clearly found him innocent.
I went to school with Ernie…He was an upstanding, kind-hearted and decent man. My heart aches for his family and I pray that justice will be served for Ernie and his family as well as for Isis. All my prayers to the Lopez family….

Nichole Daigle Trussell

why do judges find it hard to believe a dr might lie to send a man to prison for life for fun.

we live in a world where nurses have had fun slowly killing their patients:

“In an article for Forensic Nurse, Kelly Pyrek indicates that since the mid-1970s, there have been 36 cases of serial murder among nurses and other healthcare workers in the U.S.  A survey shows that the incidences appear to be increasing, with 14 during the 1990s and already five since 2000.”

before sending a man to prison for life, i’d want to hear the opinions of at least 50 doctors. these may not be innocent errors, but a doctor out there who deliberately wants to put a stranger behind bars—for fun.

wants to put a stranger behind bars—for fun.

Larry MacPhale

June 29, 2011, 1:44 p.m.

How much money should the State of Texas pay Ernie Lopez for the Crimes committed against him by the people of the State of Texas? Larimer County Colorado Paid Tim Masters $10,000,000 for his ten years in Prison as an innocent person. His case was the result of Criminal Conduct by Larimer County Colorado Officials. Google Tim Masters.

Justice is a Wobbly Wheel that to often runs over innocent people. Corrupt and Criminal Officials and Bogus Witnesses in American’s injustice System are seldom if ever prosecuted for their Crimes. The system is much more about Money that Justice. It is in fact a Ju$t U$ $y$tem.

I heard this story on NPR, and wanted to read more about it. I work with infants/ toddlers every day and am a mandatory reporter for child abuse. We think over every time we have to contact CPS, and now I understand why this is approriate. No one gave this man a fair trial, and no one investiagated the mother. She is now living in Michigan and trying to practice medicine?? How can she sleep at night knowing a man is sitting in prison because of her negligence? From what I have read and heard on NPR, Dr. Vas, neglected her child and she died from severe neglect. And a man is sitting in prison for life. And she has custody of two more kids??? Madness. Pure madness. It reminds me of Shawshank Redemption. Ernie, I’m sorry you are in the path of the tornado right now. May justice come and come soon for you.

Thank you, AC Thompson, Chisun Lee, and ProPublica decision-makers for your valuable coverage of this tragic, important, but difficult story. After years in this arena, I’ve concluded that the inborn human urge to protect our young can preclude rational thinking in individual cases of child death.

Sincere, well-meaning child-abuse doctors working with an unproven model of shaken baby syndrome (SBS) have sent hundreds of innocent parents and caretakers to prison and destroyed countless benign families over the past 30 years. Please see my web site at http://onsbs.wordpress.com, which features two other stories of improbable abuse convictions, at http://onsbs.wordpress.com/prologue/ and http://onsbs.wordpress.com/cases/another-disturbing-case/

After I saw Frontline, I could barely breathe, I was so angry.  As I grow older, I sometimes hate the “truths” I’m forced to see. (Although, I *need* to see them. I need to act.)

The troubled doctor got a pass, *because* she was a doctor; and the working class brown skinned man got 60 years, because he’s working class. Typical—or should I say STILL typical?! Texas is famous for this brand of “justice” against the poor and non-whites.  Shame on Texas! And shame on the so-called “medical examiner” whose sloppy work led to Mr. Lopez going to jail!

Please know, Ernie, that I’m praying not only for a timely new trial and release from prison but also for your family.  Your kind heart shows even on film.  You’re a Good Man and a good person. NOBODY can take that knowledge away from you!

K Rigney

Great Writing!!! Thoroughly interesting article!  It was so captivating.  (I know that compliment may not be that great coming from someone who only has a bachelor’s degree from a state university, but still!)

It’s amazing how the justice system has gone into ‘assembly line’ mode and simply disregarded individual citizens’ due process rights.  They don’t care that new science can explain what really happened and exonerate this guy, just that they want to lock someone up to give people fabricated ‘closure’ with respect to the death of this little girl.

All concerned people, write to InnocenceProject.org on Ernie’s behalf.  If enough of you do, and the family writes (sending all court documents, so far), and Ernie writes also, I bet someone over there might help.  Either they may, or they might have a Texas connection ... it’s worth writing to see if they’ll help.  Sounds like Ernie needs their help.

You can email them at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).  Thank you.

Perhaps the baby’s remains can be forensically analyzed for brown recluse bites (on the skull).  Spider bites could definitely cause the blood to fail to clot, and of course would digest the baby’s internal organs, causing breathing and heart difficulties, as the organs failed.  It might cause bleed-out, if enough time had lapsed from the time of the bites—the same as if she’d been given an overdose of coumarin.

The writing campaign’s the way to go.  You’ve got to get alot of people writing on Ernie’s behalf every day, to redirect attention to his case and get him the quality legal help he needs to fight and overturn these wrongful felony convictions.  He needs lawyers who’ll stand by him when Texas takes a second crack at him, too, because they’ll try to avoid admissions of wrongful conviction, to avoid having to pay him any compensation.

James B Storer

June 30, 2011, 6:24 a.m.

All too often we learn of a long term or death sentence conviction for child abuse resulting in death.  It is my opinion, and this is strictly intuitive layman opinion, that at least half such convictions incarcerate a fully innocent person.  Many such deaths, I believe, are purely accidental and not involving the convicted person in any way.  Others are the result of carelessness, perhaps, by the person eventually convicted.  Strange it is that a person gets off free for accidentally shooting his neighbor, but will be doubly traumatized by being sentenced to life for accidentally causing injury or death to a baby.
  The justice system is entirely corrupted and manned by “professionals” entirely devoid of human compassion or good sense when it comes to applying the law.  Occasionally a group of zany, crazy college girls will band together and raise holy hell in an effort (often successfully) to get a questionable conviction overturned.  Such efforts require wearily treading the same stinking feces laden path that resulted in the conviction in the first place.  They are not wild eyed idealists.  They are simply young ladies who wish desperately to become leaders and mothers in a nation they can cherish and be very proud of.  Invariably, they run into the concept of “closure.”  The “system” is quite content to continue incarceration if denial of pardon or retrial achieves the justice system’s beloved “closure.”
  We, the electorate, must accept some of the blame.  At least half of us must have voted for such bastards, else they would not be in office.  We talk about terrible conditions of prisons and justice in foreign countries, but who has the greatest percentage of its citizens in jail?  We have come to the point where the citizenry seems more and more to wallow happily in the self satisfying stinking squalor of ignorance.
  Skartishu, Granby MO

To John C. Mann and all those who are bashing our legal system after viewing this,

First of all, this documentary and all of your comments are assuming, without question, that this man is in fact innocent.  This case is still ongoing.  You do not know all of the facts that were presented in trial.  However, even if we do assume that fact, to denounce our entire system of justice based on this one case is extremely short-sighted.  What would you propose as an alternative?  That we merely let rapists and murderers run free?  Our system is designed to protect defendants’ rights every step of the way.  Because of this, can we guarantee that not a single innocent person will go to jail?  Absolutely not!  But what I can guarantee is that for every one of them there are, there are hundreds of thousands of guilty people that go unprosecuted or found not guilty.  My guess is that all of you who are so quick to claim the system is flawed in favor of the prosecution, have NEVER been the victim, or had a loved one be the victim, of a horrible crime.  I think that if you were to find yourself on that side of the fence you would suddenly view our justice system through very different eyes.  You would see a system that allows defendants to delay trial indefinitely, allows victims to be revictimized by having to recount horrific events time and time again, that gives people fairly convicted by a jury of their peers numerous appeals and post conviction rights, only to eventually let them off on technicalities. 

Mr. Mann, to claim that the defense always has less resources than the State just shows how truly ignorant of our system you are.  The defense usually has far better resources than the State.  Even in a Public Defender case, who do you think pays?  It comes out of the same, extremely underfunded resources that pay for State experts.  Private defense attorneys make ridiculous amounts of money and they are often paid by the amount of time they put into a case.  Prosecutors, on the other hand, get paid the same whether they try a case or dismiss it.  So, to suggest that they would willingly devote the hundreds of hours (if not more) to prosecute someone they do not truly believe committed a crime like this is absolutely ludicrous!  It would be far easier to simply drop it.  State prosecutors are overworked and underfunded, and Judges and the system err, time and time again, on the side of the defendant.  And that is how it should be, because our forefathers decided long ago that it was more important to protect the innocent from being wrongly punished than it was to ensure the guilty were rightfuly so.  However, unless we decide to let anarchy reign and all criminals run free, there will always be the potential for mistakes to happen.  So, until we invent a crystal ball that can look into a person’s soul and know, without a doubt, whether or not they are guilty, I suggest you not be so quick to denounce our system of justice.  Until a day such as that, ANY system that exacts any punishment at all, will always face that possibility that a mistake may occur.

Mr. Mann, you asked who harms society more:  a criminal who victimizes a small portion of the population or a process that puts even one innocent person in jail?  Well, Mr. Mann, your opinion on that may change if you one day find yourself forced to walk the streets with an individual who has brutally murdered a loved one of yours!

If Mr. Lopez did not commit this crime, then my heart goes out to him equally, as it does to baby Isis, as a victim of unfortunately horrible circumstances.  And if he is exonerated, I will be one of the first, as a prosecutor, to stand up and apologize for a system that failed him.  And I agree, that whenever a flaw in the system is found, we should work immediately to correct it.  But to bash the entire system because of that flaw and to automatically assume negligence or even evil intent on the part of its players, based on such limited information as is presented here, is to be guilty of the very character voids of which you seek to accuse…rushing to judgment without all the facts!

James B Storer

July 1, 2011, 3:41 p.m.

Michele H. (today 11:56 AM comment):  I truly appreciate your comment in defense of your position against almost all other comments above (including mine)..  Perhaps my comment (appearing right above yours) is one of the more acidic, the tone of which is possibly a bit more argumentative than the report and topic call for.  I have gradually become more and more critical of the operation of our government in general, and I tend to wander off topic with my comments.  There are things that bother me about the justice system, and perhaps I am dead wrong.  I believe that “guilty beyond all reasonable doubt” is often overridden by emotionalism (and political expediency), and that this finds its way into the investigation and court proceedings, especially in matters of child abuse.  Of course, this mind set is often intensified by the media, but the judge and prosecution, it seems to me, are trained and duty bound to handle such things.  Then, to show final evidence of callousness of a defendant:  “why, he shows not one iota of remorse.”  Now, please, Michele, by the very definition of the word remorse, I believe it is impossible for an innocent person to show remorse.  Only the guilty party (or accomplice) can possibly do so.  Further, and perhaps I am wrong, but I believe a person who accidentally shoots his neighbor is far more likely to get a lighter sentence than a person who accidentally allows a baby to die accidentally if homicide charges can possibly be brought and “proved.”
  Again, I truly appreciate your informative and valuable comment.
  Skartishu, Granby MO

Murderers and rapists DO RUN FREE, and often the system is the first party to free them and exonerate them of all charges, even should they be presented the evidence and testimony on a platter, and catch the felons red-handed.  It gets much worse (for the victim trying to obtain justice) when the felons ARE THE SYSTEM.  In almost all of these cases, the victim is presumed guilty and a liar—it’s a miracle that they haven’t locked up and sued victims for perjury.  I think it’s because they don’t want the additional attention an ongoing case would bring ... it might make people curious enough to investigate (and alot of us “laypeople” are diggers ... we love the research!)

Life isn’t fair, and victims bear great and unequal weights on their life, spirit and finances.  People not only do NOT understand, they rubberneck the trauma, trying to judge whether you deserved it or not, by how you react.  People love spectacle and gossip, and nothing is as delicious to them as to verbally eviscerate someone who’s going down, particularly if they’ve been involved in a sex crime, regardless of whether that involvement is as victim or perpetrator (murder becoming almost incidental to the prurient topic of sex).  They wait to pounce in condemnation on whoever’s condemned by popular consensus—- I think it goes way back to the days of public hangings, and immolations by the church/state.  It was, after all, their only form of entertainment.  If TV ratings are any indicator, it still is.

Anyone who’s been raped, and lost loved ones by murder, longs for justice.  But this longing is greatly tempered by patience, because we know it’s unlikely we’ll get justice in the courts. This patience must include an inner imperative to see that those who are wrongly accused and imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit are proved innocent and set free.  How is my individual suffering going to be lightened by making another innocent suffer?  This is “kick-the-dog” thinking, a personality defect of perpetrators and other social misfits.  We must NOT become what we hate, by victimizing somebody else.  We are not made right and vindicated by wronging another soul.  We must wait for God’s justice, and in the meantime, do no wrong to another.

Melanie Ware was proved innocent, because she had a wealthy husband who loved her and believed in her enough to sell all he had to purchase legal help and qualified medical forensics.  Yes, she was innocent, but that didn’t matter to them; they’d sentenced her on faulty forensics to 60 years in jail—and if she was going to get any justice, her husband was going to have to buy it.  This is one great love story, by the way.

Nonetheless, though she was proven innocent, the State was proven wrong, and the court verdict overturned, Georgia’s DOC still to this day (!!!) runs her mugshot online.  I believe that isn’t accidental, but it’s their way of making her life miserable for having proved their shoddy case wrong.  They don’t like losing, and want to make sure she can’t get work, as a punishment for having proved them wrong.

MELANIE, incorporate!  Start a small online business.  Put the business in your husband’s name, because anyone doing an online search won’t be pulling up DOC pictures in the search results.  This is going to work out much better for you than trying to get a job.  From this time forward, work for yourself, and you’ll find that you’ll reduce the effects of Georgia’s malicious online DOC pics on your day to day life.

Also, whatever you’re suing Georgia for, multiply that by 100 for the continued malice exhibited by Georgia, who continues to this day to characterize you online as a felon and murderer, long after you’ve been proven innocent.  May God bless you and reverse all your misfortunes.

MELANIE, I hope you’re reading these comments.  I googled the Georgia Innocence Project (which you might want to contact, perhaps for work; others have begun by assisting them). 

You can email their Director of Communications (Lisa George)
at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or contact them at
Georgia Innocence Project
2645 North Decatur Road
Decatur, Georgia 30033
Phone: (404) 373-4433

You might also want to google WitnessToInnocence.org, an organization that works to free death-row inmates, and is also staffed by exonerated death-row inmates.  They have chapters all over the country, and do speaking engagements (probably for fundraising, and to encourage public involvement and enlightenment about what’s not working in the system). 

On Tavis Smiley (tonight), a panel of exonerated men were discussing the massive financial costs to the nation of wrongful convictions ... and if you google this, you’ll see that many times, the states withhold and deny payments, even should an award be granted by the courts.  When this happens (word to the wise), it’s not enough to simply sue on the federal level for enforcement—you must get in front of the people who grant federal monies to the state in question, and discuss the scofflaw state’s defiant and fraudulent behavior with them.  Always go over the state’s head to the federal level to cut state funding, if you want to get the state’s attention and cooperation.

The problems caused by locking up innocent people are massive and destroy families, thus destroying the fabric of our society.  Who better to serve and help guide the mission to correct these problems than someone who’s been harmed by them?  You won’t find any aversion or shunning among these folks, and you may find a higher purpose along with a job.  You may find God’s hand guiding you to victory.  Good luck.

Andrea McKinney

July 2, 2011, 11:28 a.m.

Awash in an endless torrent of news about tragedies around the world, the story of Ernie Lopez’s tragedy struck me more forcefully than anything has in years.  Who can imagine anything much more horrifying than being falsely accused and convicted of a such a heinous crime?  I profoundly hope that, given the testimony of many experts on his behalf,  his conviction is overturned and he’s allowed to resume his life in dignity and peace.  If there is anything a lone citizen can do to help, I would like to know.

Wow, the comments are amazing. First here is my position on this case—-He is innocent. I have had the great please of knowing this man for 20+years. He is an awesome man, christian, father, brother, son and friend. If I had any doubt in his innocence I would not of created the http://www.freeernielopez.com website and his facebook page.

I didn’t get to go to his first trial but, sat through the evidentiary hearing in September 2009 and am dumb founded as to why any of the physicians, nurses and medical examiners are still practicing.

Ernie did not get a fair trial the first time around because his court appointed attorney DID NOT thoroughly investigate, DID NOT bring in any expert witnesses and DID NOT fight for him.  Ernie was at the mercy of the court and got 60 years because our judicial system is sooo Fabulous!!!

Here’s another bit of information I later learned, 9 of the jurors were going with innocent and 3 were uncertain. The Judge told them they could not have a hung jury so, they had to make a decision since, 3 weren’t sure so they all changed their decision to guilty. Hmmm..9 to 3, yea it’s fair to go with the minority instead of the majority vote. Did you catch the comments made by the DA in the interview in reference to the jurors? He didn’t mention the 9-3 thing did he?

AC Thompson did a fabulous job with The Child Cases documentary unfortunately 30 minutes isn’t enough to get all of the facts out about any of these cases. Those of us who are closely connected to any of these stories, will be extra sensitive and show frustrations towards the injustice that is bestowed upon our loved ones and to the victims. For us, we want Ernie to be freed from this nightmare but we also want Isis to receive her justice and to be able to rest in peace.

Love and prayers goes out to Ernie and his family and a BIG Thank you to NPR, Frontline, PBS, ProPublica for your awesome coverage.

Rosie and Ernest Lopez

July 2, 2011, 10:36 p.m.

Thank You Frontline, PBS, NPR, Pro Publica adn to Zak, Katherine, Joe, AC and everyone who worked on Ernie’s and Isis’s story. We are so thankful for all that you have done.  Many Blessings to everyone and All our Love,  Then Lopez Family

I want to thank everyone for ALL their prayers and support and to say: This is not only my story but Isis’s story. Also, thank you Frontline, PBS, NPR, Pro Publica and all the people all over the US and Canada.  Thank you, Ernie Lopez

This message was transcribed via a phone conversation with Ernie and his mother.

Ernie Lopez and Familly

July 3, 2011, 1:32 p.m.

Thank you message from The Lopez Family:
Thank You Frontline, PBS, NPR, Pro Publica adn to Zak, Katherine, Joe, AC and everyone who worked on Ernie’s and Isis’s story. We are so thankful for all that you have done.
Many blessings to everyone and all our Love,
The Lopez Family

Thank you message from Ernie Lopez:
I want to thank everyone for ALL their prayers and support and to say: This is not only my story but Isis’s story. Also, Thank you Frontline, PBS, NPR, Pro Publica and all the people all over the US and Canada.
Thank you,
Ernie Lopez

Sabreena Roberts

July 5, 2011, 6:45 p.m.

My family and I are going through this right now.Our son is in jail right now,His daughter died almost three years ago,and now he is having to relive those trying moments all over again.We would love some guidance on some pro bono attorneys and such.When our granddaughter passed away the DA at the time passed on this case a non-convictable.Our local attorneys assure us that this case can be beaten.However we do not have the twenty,And fifty thousand that is required for their services.Oh that we were made of money,working poor doesn’t count for much,we fear that our son will suffer longterm because of our lacking financally.Our prayers and support to all who have lost and had to fight a placing of blame over the loss. Jarnagin family

To Sabreena Roberts:

First, contact Project Innocence and Witness To Innocence in your state.  They may know how to help you best.  But be diligent in writing to them, and don’t give up.  The get alot of requests from all over.  Find out if there’s a branch in your state, and contact them.

Google the child cases online, study them, and study the methods that worked when they appealed and won their freedom.  Contact any law firms or lawyers they used to ask for referrals to someone in your state.  Often, the good guys know of each other, and can tell you.

Most states have a Bar Association in their capital, or in a major city of the state.  Sometimes you can find branches in a state.  Check to see how it’s set up in yours.  If you go this route, you may be able to find a pro bono attorney, but it’s really luck of the draw (just like being assigned a state defense attorney).  You’ve no idea if the person who agrees to help you is effective or good at what they do.  The Bar draws a smorgasbord of legal help, and it may turn out well, or not.

A better method is to target law firms with proven track records.  It’s more likely that you’ll find pro bono attorneys in a larger firm, but smaller firms have them too. 

Democratic organizations in your vicinity may know of some that can help you.  You may also want to consult your council person and senator for their recommended referrals.  They may not do much more than that, but when you’re searching for leads to quality help, their advice might point you in the right direction.

This should be step #2.  You can go to your local law library, get on Nexus, and look up these types of child cases in your state, looking for the firms that mounted successful defenses and appeals.  Put about 1/2 your day to it, and phone calls and letters the second half.  Law libraries can close by 4 pm in some places, so get there early.  You can also find lists of the firms in your region, by city, county and state there, which you should copy.

Make copies of everything, because things will jump out at you later.  (It will help to buy a VuPoint Magic Wand on HSN, because copies used to be 25 cents a page, and maybe it’s even more now.  That’s very costly when you’re on a tight budget.) You save the pages to the wand and download it to your computer, when you get home.  I think you can even transfer it to your phone.  It’s a necessary time, work and data saver.

Find your local ArchDiocese Headquarters, and go there.  The Director and his assistant may know of pro bono attorneys (or refer you to someone who does). 

Go to all the heads of every non-profit, charitable organization you can find, and every democratic organization you can find.  Go to the council of churches, and then to the big churches, and branch HQ for churches, then individual churches. 

Consult other faiths’ organization.  The Jewish American League (JAL) I believe has some legal aid groups and they do pro bono work, and very very low cost work, depending on your means.  Sometimes they focus mainly on tenant-landlord cases and evictions, but they’ll be able to tell you who you want to go see.  Definitely visit them and see what they’ve got to say.

There’s probably much more you can do, that I’m just not thinking of right now, but I hope this gives you someplace to start.  Good luck to you and your son.

I don’t understand how a spider bites a child on the neck 14 times (and 14?  what, did he stand there and watch it bite her, counting?) and it wasn’t reported or checked.

Whichever story is true, he killed that girl one way or another.

Sabreena Roberts

July 12, 2011, 9:10 p.m.

To Kim Meyers:
Our family sends a great big heartfelt hug to you and yours.We appreciate the time you took to reach   out to us. I see that others will benefit from your knowledge as well.I say to you ,“keep up the good fight”  .Our son has been charged and not convicted yet…..we are trying to keep our spirits up and God only knows what is around the corner.Anyway thank you               Jarnagin Family and God Bless you and keep you and yours in the name of Christ.

To K:
Typically, when a spider bites someone it swells up into a little bump, or even a coloured mark. I’m assuming that Mr. Lopez could count and saw 14 of these Marks. And if you read the article, Mr. Lopez requested permission to take Iris to a doctor out, and was denied. Since he isn’t the guardian of the child he would be unable to do anything along those lines without the permission of the child’s mother.

Lisa Hofeling

July 13, 2011, 7:06 p.m.

After reading this I feel like crying, because I can only imagine what this poor man has gone through for the last 11 years.  Its hard to sit here knowing there is almost nothing that I can do to help this man.  Shame on that judge for not deciding that no reasonable juror would’ve voted not guilty had they had this evidence.  I think the evidence definitely provides reasonable doubt and I definitely would not have found a man guilty based on what I read in this story.  Casey Anthony got off because she managed to hide her poor daughter’s body long enough for no cause of death to be determined, yet she had duct tape around her head!  Witnesses all said that Isis was sick and had strange scabs and bruising days before her death.  It is hard to believe that an innocent man could get sentenced to (what is essentially) life in prison on shoddy forensic evidence and an evil person like Casey Anthony could be aquitted due to lack of it.  Isis’ mother needs to be arrested and charged with negligient homicide.  If anyone needs someone to blame its clearly her!  I don’t know how Ernie is able to read the bible and believe in God after everything he has been through, but this is a testament to how strong he is.  Like Melanie Ware said, “baby killers” are the lowest of the totem pole in prison.  No doubt Ernie has experienced threats and beatings.  I think after all of this, the fact that Ernie’s most upsetting thought is “what could I have done differently” to save that baby’s life shows he is innocent.  He was trying to save her while her selfish and careless mother (a DOCTOR!) apparently went on vacation to see a man while leaving her sick kids at home.  I don’t usually use the race card, but it definitely sounds like in this case the white doctor mother screwed the hispanic, blue-collar man.

To K: I recommend that you go listen to the video again and read the report on it. You can even go to the website http://www.freeernielopez.com and view court documents to learn about the details of the case. It is noted that Ernie and his wife at the time noticed the “spider bite” marks on the baby when she was dropped off and placed in there care. He questioned the mother about them and was told by Isis’ mother (a doctor) they were spider bites. He also asked her mother for a note so they could take the baby to the doctor if there were a medical need and she refused him the note and went out of town. (AGAIN she is a Doctor and was working in an ER at that time)
Everyone is certainly entitled to their opinion but, do it with eyes open and get the facts straight.

To Lisa: AMEN Sister!!! Ernie is an amazing man and has held fast to the Lord through this whole ordeal but, he walked close the the Lord before this happened. He’s just had more time on his hands to study the Bible and get even closer to his Heavenly Father.
I also agree with you about the” race card”.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Post Mortem

Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America

A year-long investigation into the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices uncovered a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

The Story So Far

In TV crime dramas and detective novels, every suspicious death is investigated by a highly trained medical professional, equipped with sophisticated 21st century technology.

The reality in America’s morgues is quite different. ProPublica, in collaboration with PBS “Frontline”  and NPR, took an in-depth look at the nation’s 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

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