Free, But Not Cleared: Ernie Lopez Comes Home After nine years in prison for sexual assault of a baby girl, Lopez has been reunited with his family in Texas. An investigation by NPR, Frontline and ProPublica showed that the baby had a disorder that mimicked the signs of physical abuse. And now, Lopez awaits a new trial.
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Free, But Not Cleared: Ernie Lopez Comes Home

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Free, But Not Cleared: Ernie Lopez Comes Home

Free, But Not Cleared: Ernie Lopez Comes Home

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Last summer on this program, we brought you the story of Ernie Lopez and why he might have been wrongly charged in the rape and killing of a baby girl. Recently, a Texas court overturned his conviction. He's scheduled to have a new trial.

Joseph Shapiro, from NPR's investigative unit, was in Amarillo this weekend when Lopez was reunited with his family.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This is the sound of a man who walks out of prison after nearly nine years.


SHAPIRO: Ernie Lopez walked out of the detention center in Amarillo on Friday. He gave his 16-year-old daughter, Nikki, a long, tearful hug, and thanked the crowd of family and friends.

ERNIE LOPEZ: I love you. It's going to be all right.


LOPEZ: You all doing OK? Yeah? Thank you all for coming.

NIKKI: Oh, my God.


LOPEZ: Thank you all for coming. I appreciate you all.

SHAPIRO: Ernie Lopez and his wife were the child-care providers for a 6-month-old girl named Isis Vas. He was with the baby the morning in October of 2000 when she collapsed. Based on an autopsy report that found bruises and bleeding, Lopez was indicted for capital murder and sexual assault. As he left the jail the other day, Lopez held his worn Bible and said he'd not harmed the child.

LOPEZ: I woke up every day in that prison, saying, this is not who I am and they cannot make me somebody that I'm not. They cannot. And they cannot do it.

SHAPIRO: Last summer, a joint investigation by NPR, PBS Frontline and ProPublica showed that an overlooked factor likely caused the baby's death. Isis Vas had a severe blood-clotting disorder, one that caused bruising and bleeding that mimicked the signs of physical and sexual abuse.

In January, a top Texas court threw out Lopez's 60-year prison sentence. The ruling, said his original attorneys, failed to call any medical experts, even though that could have changed the verdict.



SHAPIRO: At the detention center, as Lopez got into a car to go home, Heather Kirkwood, the attorney who filed the successful appeal, got a phone call. It was another family, asking for her help in a similar case.

KIRKWOOD: There's been a major shift in the medical literature, in cases of this nature, over the past decade.

SHAPIRO: Kirkwood says, and the NPR investigative series showed, that the scientific understanding of what causes child deaths is changing. There's more recognition of blood-clotting disorders, strokes, and other things that can cause the sudden death of a child but sometimes look like the signs of child abuse.

Randall Sims, the district attorney for Amarillo, declined to speak on tape. But he told NPR he still believes Lopez is guilty, and will pursue the case against him.

On his first weekend home, Erie Lopez enjoyed little things he couldn't do in prison: a traditional Christmas dinner eating his mother's tamales; walking barefoot. And when it started to snow, he went outside, spread his arms, and lifted his face to the sky.


SHAPIRO: On Saturday night, family and friends rented a barn to dance, and raise funds for the next trial. The party was picking up at 9:30 when Lopez took the microphone, with a reminder that his freedom is limited. As a condition of his release, he has a curfew.

LOPEZ: But I got to be in at 10:00, you know, A lot of you all don't know, but I got a GPS sensor on my - I'm an electronic man right now. I've got to go. And I'm sorry. I wish with all my heart that I could stay here with you all. Man, I love you all.

SHAPIRO: The retrial of Ernie Lopez is expected to begin in the fall. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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