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Free, But Not Cleared: Ernie Lopez Comes Home

The case of an Amarillo man, released from prison last week, reflects a larger controversy over the reliability of scientific evidence in child death cases.

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

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After nearly nine years in prison, Ernie Lopez has returned home to Amarillo, Texas, where a throng of family members and supporters celebrated his release.

Hugging his daughter Nikki and brother Eddie late last week, Lopez seemed overwhelmed and relieved.

A jury in 2003 convicted Lopez -- who was profiled by ProPublica, PBS "Frontline" and NPR last year -- of sexually assaulting six-month-old Isis Vas, whom he was babysitting. The girl died shortly after the alleged attack.

But in the years since Lopez was sentenced to 60 years behind bars, new evidence has surfaced suggesting Vas died of natural causes -- a severe blood disorder called Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation, which can cause bleeding throughout the body. Lopez's appellate lawyers, led by Seattle attorney Heather Kirkwood, have amassed a team of medical specialists who have challenged the notion that Lopez sexually assaulted the child and fatally injured her brain.

Lopez, 41, has always maintained his innocence.

In January, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Lopez's conviction, saying that his original legal team had provided him with ineffective assistance during his trial by "failing to call medical experts" to dispute the prosecution's theory that Lopez had attacked the baby. The court -- the highest criminal court in Texas -- didn't absolve Lopez, but said there was a "reasonable probability" that he would have been acquitted had his attorneys countered the medical evidence arrayed against him.

Lopez's story reflects a broader controversy. Increasing numbers of doctors and other experts are questioning the reliability of the science used to prosecute cases of fatal child abuse and sexual assault. In Canada and the U.S. at least 23 people who were wrongly accused of killing children based on flawed or biased work by forensic pathologists have been cleared over the last 15 years.

The Texas court's ruling set the stage for Lopez to be released Friday on a $10,000 bond. His release order bars him from initiating contact with children, though he is allowed to spend time with his three children. It also requires him to wear an electronic monitoring anklet and to abide by a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

At his parents' home on the outskirts of Amarillo, Lopez celebrated the events and holidays he missed during his long confinement. The family even put up a Christmas tree.

While Lopez was overjoyed to be reunited with his family and friends, Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims has signaled his intent to retry Lopez on sexual assault charges.

Sims recently declined to talk about the details of the case with ProPublica, PBS "Frontline," and NPR. Throughout the appeals process, prosecutors have maintained that Lopez assaulted Vas, and have enlisted an array of medical professionals to support that contention.

Lopez's lawyers said they expect their client to face trial again this fall. Since his release, Lopez has reveled in his freedom and grappled with the reality that it may be only temporary.

The videos were produced by the following: Producer: Catherine Upin; Editor: David Chmura; Camera: Zachary Stauffer; Field Producer: Zachary Stauffer; Orignal Music: Rob Morsberger; Additional Editing: Michael H. Amundson.

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