This story was co-published with PBS Frontline.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals today set aside the conviction of Ernie Lopez, an Amarillo man found guilty in 2003 of sexually assaulting six-month-old Isis Vas. The baby died shortly after the purported attack.
Lopez has been serving a term of 60 years in Texas prison for the crime. But a joint reporting effort by ProPublica, NPR, and PBS "Frontline" last year explored the possibility that Lopez might be innocent.
In the years since Lopez's trial, a host of physicians have reviewed the medical evidence in the case, raising questions about the soundness of his conviction. Many of these specialists have come to believe that Vas actually died of natural causes, and that Lopez never assaulted the child at all.
During a tearful prison interview, the inmate insisted he wasn’t a sex offender and killer. "That's not my character," he said. "That's not who I am."
"We are very pleased with the Court of Criminal Appeals' decision to set aside Ernie’s conviction," said one of Lopez’s attorneys, Heather Kirkwood, in an email. "The Texas courts deserve ample recognition for the careful review of the record that led to today’s decision."
The Lopez case highlights the growing international controversy about 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 have been wrongly accused of killing children based on questionable medical evidence, and California Gov. Jerry Brown is currently considering commuting the sentence of a grandmother convicted of fatally shaking her 7-week-old grandson.
The Texas court didn’t rule on Lopez’s culpability and did not set him free. Instead, the court concluded that Lopez received ineffective legal representation during his trial because his lawyers failed to challenge the prosecution’s medical evidence.
The ruling, which affirms the findings of a lower court, calls for Lopez to be returned to Amarillo, where local prosecutors will have the option to try him a second time or simply let him go.
In August 2010, Potter County Judge Dick Alcala recommended that Lopez's conviction be overturned, stating 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."
Kirkwood, who began representing Lopez after he’d been sent to prison, said she was hopeful that her client would be released on bond while District Attorney Randall Sims decides whether or not to retry Lopez.
During the appeals process, the prosecutor’s office tapped a number of medical experts who supported the conclusion that Vas had been sexually assaulted and abused.
A phone call to Sims was not immediately returned.