The Child Cases


The Child Cases

June 28, 2011; Updated Feb. 21, 2012

A.C. Thompson, ProPublica

A.C. THOMPSON, Correspondent: [voice-over] I'm heading to Amarillo, Texas, to investigate a case that began 11 years ago. It was a Saturday morning, and a mechanic named Ernie Lopez was baby-sitting the children of a local doctor at his home. The youngest was 6-month-old Isis Vas.

ERNIE LOPEZ: I fed the kids breakfast. I had them at the kitchen table and I had Isis in her swing. She had her bottle, but she wasn't eating it. So I got her out of the swing and I went to go put her in the crib. And I went to the kitchen. I left her in the crib. And whenever I went back in there, I noticed that Isis— she was limp. She was just there and her lips were blue.

911 OPERATOR: What's going on?

ERNIE LOPEZ: OK, my— we're baby-sitting this little baby girl for Dr. Vas. And she was bitten by a spider not too long ago, a week ago Monday, and she's been acting funny ever since.

911 OPERATOR: Is she breathing right now?

ERNIE LOPEZ: No, she's not breathing on her own. I was fixing to put her in the bath and she stopped breathing. And I've been trying to give her CPR for the last two or three minutes.

911 OPERATOR: OK, I need you to keep doing CPR.

A.C. THOMPSON: Ernie Lopez's mother, Rosa Lopez, lived across the street.

ROSA LOPEZ, Ernie Lopez's Mother: We started hearing sirens. That sticks in my mind, you know, that that was the beginning of the nightmare— the sirens, the fire trucks, and then later on the ambulance.

ERNIE LOPEZ: I hit her on her thigh, on her leg, trying to get her attention. And I shook her a little bit. I jiggled her a little bit. I put my ear to her chest and I heard her heart, just beating, just racing.

A.C. THOMPSON: Ernie's brother, Eddie, was called in.

EDDIE LOPEZ, Ernie Lopez's Brother: My mom came over and talked to me, and told me, "Hey, could you go up to the hospital?" And I said OK, so I drove on to the hospital.

A.C. THOMPSON: But at the hospital, doctors and nurses were alarmed. They found bruising and vaginal bleeding. And the last person alone with the child was Ernie Lopez.

ROSA LOPEZ: So Ernie was calling me from the hospital. He called me one or two times, telling me that they were asking him lots of questions.

EDDIE LOPEZ: I said, "Ernie what's going on?" He goes, "Bro, they're trying to accuse me of killing the baby and raping the baby." I was, like, "What?"

ROSA LOPEZ: He told me that he was trying to tell them, you know, that the baby had been sick for days, and they didn't want to hear that. They wanted to know just what was going on within the last 30 minutes or so.

ERNIE LOPEZ: Detective Moore would come in and ask me, you know, different questions. And then he said he wanted a statement from me. And I was so upset, I was crying.

ROSA LOPEZ: Eddie called me and he told me that they had arrested Ernie.

EDDIE LOPEZ: They handcuffed him and put him in the police car. And we're, like, "Where's the jail at?" Because we've never been in trouble.

A.C. THOMPSON: Isis died the next day. Medical examiner Joni McClain would perform the autopsy. To McClain, the evidence pointed to sexual assault and murder. She found bruising on Isis's head and body, hemorrhaging in the brain, and a laceration at the entrance to the vagina. In her final report, she called it homicide by multiple blunt force injuries.

Ernie Lopez was charged with aggravated sexual assault, and after a short trial, he was found guilty. Before sentencing, medical examiner Joni McClain testified that the baby died from this violent assault. Lopez was sentenced to 60 years in prison.

ERNIE LOPEZ: You know, and sometimes it just hits me, "Man, I'm in prison." I never thought that I would be in prison, never in a hundred years.

A.C. THOMPSON: For the past two years, FRONTLINE, ProPublica and NPR have been investigating medical examiners and the field of forensic pathology. We found a broken system in which the most basic principles of science and investigation are often ignored, with no national standards of any kind.

ROSS ZUMWALT, M.D., Chief Medical Investigator: [FRONTLINE "Post Mortem"] It amazes me that such an important aspect of our government as medical legal death investigation doesn't have to have accreditation. I mean, everything else is accredited. Hospitals are accredited. Barbers are accredited.

A.C. THOMPSON: We were told that some of the most difficult cases to investigate are those involving young children. Here, sudden deaths are often assumed to be murder, and the caregivers are frequently the accused. We decided to take a closer look.

Dr. Jon Thogmartin is chief medical examiner for St. Petersburg, Florida.

[on camera] Tell me about the challenges that child autopsy cases pose.

JON THOGMARTIN, M.D., Chief Med. Examiner, Pinellas/Pasco Counties, FL: Well, they're hard because of the emotional content that comes with them, the anger and despair that you'll experience on your own and others'. They'll come in with a lot of expectations, and so you'll have to shield yourself from that. You have to objectify the kid and just find out what happened to them.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] But finding out what happens in child cases is especially complicated.

Dr. JON THOGMARTIN: It's going to take less disease to kill a kid than it does an adult. And whatever you're looking for, it's going to be smaller and less.

A.C. THOMPSON: Thogmartin has seen this firsthand. When he became chief medical examiner, he reversed two child death cases handled by his predecessor.

Dr. JON THOGMARTIN: I told them that there's— basically, the injuries that are described here aren't here. They imagined the retinal hemorrhages on the eyes.

A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] They imagined injuries that weren't there?

Dr. JON THOGMARTIN: They imagined injuries that weren't there. The mindset is prosecutorial, homicide until proven otherwise. They get caught up in the anger, the emotion, the despair. And you can't do that.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] The problem Thogmartin was talking about actually blew up into a national scandal a few years ago in Canada. A rash of wrongful convictions led to a high-profile inquiry and a new set of standards. But in the U.S., few are talking about these solutions.

[on camera] Let me know if these are nationally required.


A.C. THOMPSON: Are you required in child death cases to be a board-certified forensic pathologist in the U.S.?


A.C. THOMPSON: Are you required to have any peer review of child death cases?


A.C. THOMPSON: Are you required to review the medical records in child death cases before or after doing your autopsy?


A.C. THOMPSON: Are you required to consult with specialists in the field on difficult child death cases?


A.C. THOMPSON, Correspondent, ProPublica: [voice-over] After combing through court records, FRONTLINE, ProPublica and NPR found nearly two dozen cases in the U.S. and Canada in which people were prosecuted for killing children based on questionable autopsies and testimony. All of them were eventually cleared of wrongdoing.

We found one of these cases just a day's drive from Ernie Lopez, in El Paso. Monea Tyson spent nearly two years in lockdown in the county jail before being acquitted of the murder of her 2-year-old son, Jayceon.

MONEA TYSON: That last thing I seen was my son not breathing, you know, and I seen his face turning pale and everything.

A.C. THOMPSON: The case was based largely on the findings of the medical examiner.

MONEA TYSON: It was kind of hard to comprehend that somebody would charge you with something like that. I knew me and I knew what I didn't do, and was hard to go through that.

A.C. THOMPSON: The autopsy on Tyson's infant son was performed by Dr. Paul Shrode. He found the case a homicide, based on blunt force trauma to the head. But that's not what the forensic pathologist for the defense found.

LEONARD MORALES, Defense Attorney: Looking at the kind of force you need to create that kind of injury to the brain, there was no skull fracture. There was no other injury to the brain in any other location. So it seemed to her that the injury described as blunt force trauma really didn't exist.

A.C. THOMPSON: In the end, the defense expert argued Jayceon died of an infection. She also testified that some of the bruises Dr. Shrode saw as signs of abuse were likely birthmarks. The defense attorneys made a point of Dr. Shrode's lack of board certification, and challenged his truthfulness.

LEONARD MORALES: He had falsified his resume, in the first place. We had also discovered that he was involved in another capital case where a man was apparently on death row due in large part to Doctor Shrode's testimony and his findings in another autopsy, which were apparently debunked, unfounded.

A.C. THOMPSON: Dr. Shrode declined our repeated requests for an interview.

Dr. JON THOGMARTIN: Anybody who's doing an autopsy on a kid that's not board-certified in the field, they should be blown out of the water. I don't know how they make it when they're not. Anyone who's not consulting the specialists, not getting the medical records, I don't see how they make it on a day-to-day basis. I don't see how they're not run out of town on a rail.

A.C. THOMPSON: Dr. Shrode's background came under review by the county commissioners. They fired him just months before Monea Tyson's trial but did not specify why.

NEWSCASTER: Only KFOX cameras were rolling as Monea Tyson heard the words, "Not guilty."

LEONARD MORALES: At the end of this trial, the jurors asked to see Monea Tyson. In all the years that I've been doing this, I've heard of that before. The jurors hugged her. They cried with her. They asked her when she was going to see her kids again.

A.C. THOMPSON: Another problem in the child cases that we uncovered— there's little agreement among medical experts on what causes children to die unexpectedly. Pediatric science has undergone a revolution in recent years. One diagnosis in particular has come under fire, shaken baby syndrome.

Take this case from Decatur, Georgia. I came here to meet Melonie Ware. Ware was a day care provider convicted of shaking a 9-month-old baby to death. She was sentenced to life in prison. But in 2009, at a retrial, the medical examiner's findings were called into question and she was acquitted.

MELONIE WARE: All my life, I've loved children, just playing with children, being on their level. That's what I liked to do.

A.C. THOMPSON: It all began when Ware, a certified child care provider, was watching Jaden Paige at her home day care center. The baby became unresponsive. She was taken in for questioning and arrested that night.

MELONIE WARE: I was being taken away from my family, my husband, my kids, my parents. And there wasn't anything that I could do to stop it.

A.C. THOMPSON: The medical examiner, Gerald Gowitt, found three nearly identical half-inch bruises beneath baby Jaden's scalp. He argued at trial that Melonie shook the baby violently, hitting the baby's head three times, causing the bleeding and swelling that added up to classic shaken baby syndrome.

MELONIE WARE: I was just in shock because I never thought that they would actually come back and say that I did that. I couldn't believe it.

TONY AXAM, Defense Attorney: In baby cases, they approach a problem differently. If the caregiver says she did not injure this child and we have no way to prove this child's death, then the caregiver must be the murderer. It's opposite with all legal theory.

A.C. THOMPSON: Attorney Tony Axam would later handle Melonie Ware's retrial.

TONY AXAM: Because we're more sensitive to the death of children, we have to say it doesn't go unexplained. We say there must have been some violence involved.

A.C. THOMPSON: Documents we found in the files of the medical examiner, Gerald Gowitt, raised questions about his independence from law enforcement. Before doing the autopsy, Dr. Gowitt met with two prosecutors and four different detectives, all members of the County Child Abuse Task Force.

REGGIE WARE, Melonie Ware's Husband: They're supposed to be an unbiased entity of Dekalb County. They are supposed to be totally unbiased. I don't think they should have met at all.

A.C. THOMPSON: We tried repeatedly to speak with Dr. Gowitt about the Ware case, but he declined our requests.

With his wife in prison, Reggie Ware didn't give up.

REGGIE WARE: I sold this house right here about six months later.

A.C. THOMPSON: One by one, he began selling houses he'd acquired over years as part of his real estate business. It would cost him more than $700,000 to challenge his wife's conviction.

REGGIE WARE: And this house right here was Melonie's grandmother's house. They kind of got upset when I sold it.

A.C. THOMPSON: And Reggie spent countless hours studying the case.

REGGIE WARE: About like a crash course in college, I guess, of trying to learn about medical science, the new science that was coming out. Then I started trying to find information about shaken baby syndrome.

A.C. THOMPSON: In recent years, pediatric science has been changing.

TONY AXAM: Between the time of the first trial and the second trial, the science of shaken baby changed. They don't like to refer to it as shaken baby syndrome anymore.

PATRICK BARNES, M.D., Stanford University: For 20 years, we were implicating shaking for just about every injury that we're seeing, particularly in the young infants.

A.C. THOMPSON: Pediatric radiologist Patrick Barnes was a key prosecution witness in 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's help, Woodward was found guilty of second-degree murder.

LOUISE WOODWARD: [in court] I didn't do anything!

A.C. THOMPSON: The case would be a turning point for Barnes.

Dr. PATRICK BARNES: I was really affected by all of that and began to question my role as a pediatric radiologist and a neuroradiologist as part of the child abuse team in these particular cases. Shaking was irrelevant in that case, in retrospect.

A.C. THOMPSON: But it was clear that something had happened to the child.

Dr. PATRICK BARNES: The child had an impact injury. You can't get a skull fracture from shaking. You can't get a wrist fracture from shaking.

A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] But the prosecution's theory was this child was shaken.

Dr. PATRICK BARNES: That's correct. And at that time, that was my theory going into that case, based on my previous 20 years of experience in child abuse and accepting shaken baby syndrome.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] For decades, when Barnes and others saw bleeding in the eyes, and bleeding and swelling on the brain, they assumed it was shaken baby syndrome. Many doctors still stand by the diagnosis. But now, Barnes says, science is proving the old assumptions wrong.

Dr. PATRICK BARNES: When we started using more advanced imaging techniques such as MRI, 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.

A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] If you were called to testify in the Woodward case today, what would you say?

Dr. PATRICK BARNES: I would say that this is most likely a traumatic impact injury, that I would not be considering shaking, that this could be accidental, just as it could be non-accidental or abusive. And I would say that you cannot select out, accuse, indict or convict any particular caretaker based on the medical evidence that we have.

A.C. THOMPSON: In Melonie Ware's case, the shaken baby theory seemed to come apart under scrutiny. It seems those near identical bruises under baby Jaden's scalp were actually caused by doctors at the hospital. Three times, they tried to save his life by inserting needles into his head.

Jaden was born with sickle cell anemia, and top sickle cell experts testified that he died of the disease. Before all this came out in the second trial, Melonie Ware had been in prison for 13 months.

MELONIE WARE: It was horrible. When you're in prison and they think that you harmed a child, it's not a place that you want to be. We had to move in with my parents, all of us together, to make things work so we could pay bills. Even if I go look for a job, and they pull my record and it says that I was found not guilty, they still don't call me back.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] In the case of Ernie Lopez, it's been 11 years since 6-month-old Isis Vas stopped breathing that Saturday morning at the Lopez home. Ernie Lopez was the father of three children. He worked as a mechanic. And to make extra money, his wife baby-sat for her doctor, an OB-GYN named Veronica Vas.

Three days before that Saturday, Dr. Vas had brought her three children to stay with the Lopez family. Ernie Lopez remembers noticing that baby Isis had a number of unusual marks or bites on her head, which her mother acknowledged.

ERNIE LOPEZ: Dr. Vas said they were flea bites, and I've never seen flea bites like that, maybe around here, here, on her forehead and some on her neck. They were black.

A.C. THOMPSON: People at work later recalled his concern about the baby's condition.

ERNIE LOPEZ: There was one episode when she had woken up and she was crying, and she was, like, gasping for air while she was crying.

A.C. THOMPSON: The Lopezes were also concerned about the color of her stool.

ERNIE LOPEZ: It had turned black. It was tarry, almost sticky substance, and it was really hard to clean her, you know?

A.C. THOMPSON: Ernie Lopez said he asked Dr. Vas for a note to take Isis to the doctor just before she went out of town.

ERNIE LOPEZ: I ran out the door and I asked her, I said, "We need a note just in case something happens." And she said, "Isis will be fine."

[911 call]

ERNIE LOPEZ: And I've been trying to give her CPR for the last two or three minutes.

911 OPERATOR: OK. I need you to keep doing CPR.

ERNIE LOPEZ: I tried to slap her on her bottom and slap her on the face, but she won't wake up. She won't do nothing.

911 OPERATOR: OK. I need you to keep doing it, OK? Keep going.

A.C. THOMPSON: That evening, after Isis was rushed to the hospital and staff began to suspect abuse, Ernie Lopez was arrested and charged with sexual assault of a minor. The trial would take place some three years later. His defense team called no expert witnesses to challenge the prosecution's case.

EDDIE LOPEZ: One side, you had everybody, all the experts, all— whatever they wanted, they got. And on Ernie's side, nothing. They didn't have any experts. I was, like, "How is that fair?"

EDWIN BASHAM, Ph.D., Psychologist: I was just waiting to be called, and I never heard anything.

A.C. THOMPSON: After Ernie Lopez was arrested, Child Protective Services asked psychologist Edwin Basham to evaluate whether he posed a threat to his own children. Basham has done over 4,000 of these evaluations.

[on camera] If you had been called on Ernie's behalf, what would you have said?

EDWIN BASHAM: I would have said that there wasn't a basis to suggest that he would be someone likely to have harmed a child, and it would be extremely out of character to imagine that he did that. And that would be— that's the results of the psychological exam.

HEATHER KIRKWOOD, Attorney: The defense does not present any opposing medical testimony, nor do they cross-examine the experts in any meaningful way.

A.C. THOMPSON: What did that do to his chances for being acquitted?

HEATHER KIRKWOOD: I think they decreased his chances of being acquitted to zero.

A.C. THOMPSON: Heather Kirkwood is a pro bono attorney who is trying to overturn the Lopez conviction.

HEATHER KIRKWOOD: There's no evidence that she was sexually assaulted at all. There is evidence that she was ill and was essentially crashing in the days before her death.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Kirkwood uncovered a stack of hospital records that the original medical examiner paid little attention to. Then she assembled a team of pro bono experts to study the evidence.

One of them, Dr. Michael Laposata, oversees six million blood tests a year at Vanderbilt University. He's an expert on bleeding disorders and published an article on diseases that mimic the symptoms of child abuse.

MICHAEL LAPOSATA, M.D., Pathologist-in-Chief, Vanderbilt Univ.: In this particular slide, you see bruises on the legs. And over on the right side in this other child, similar bruises. Well, it turns out that only the child on the right has the bruises associated with child abuse. So as you can see, if you are just allowing yourself to look at a bruise and saying, "Is that child abuse?"— you can't do it.

This one has a disorder where he got the flu and his platelet count went down, and that makes you bruise easily. And they can even be spontaneous bruises. But you could see how somebody like this might be considered a victim of abuse. And that's why the lab tests are so important.

A.C. THOMPSON: In the case of Isis Vas, the medical examiner, Joni McClain, recently said she didn't recall looking at the baby's lab tests.

[on camera] She came into the hospital and had a whole battery of tests done on her before she passed on.

Dr. MICHAEL LAPOSATA: There were clear abnormalities even in the routine lab tests in this case. The tests called PT and PTT were markedly abnormal. The platelet count was low.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] The labs showed Isis had blood in her stool, an elevated white blood count, and abnormal liver function, and that her PTT result, a test that measures the time it takes blood to clot, was literally off the charts.

Dr. MICHAEL LAPOSATA: It was a classic picture, as you're putting in this puzzle together, of a disorder called DIC, disseminated intravascular coagulation, and you can bleed from that. 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. So just because there were bruises doesn't mean that the child was ever hit.

A.C. THOMPSON: McClain, who wouldn't give us an interview, said in recent testimony she didn't need the test results because this was such a clear case of blunt force injury.

[on camera] She said "I don't get into PTT. I'm a forensic pathologist and all my people are dead. We don't run PTTs."

Dr. MICHAEL LAPOSATA: You have to put the whole picture together to be able to get to a diagnosis. It's a 500-piece puzzle. And sometimes, that 500-piece puzzle is a snowstorm.

A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] The state's experts in this case, they'll say, "Dr. Laposata, you got it wrong. When a child or an adult has head trauma, they can get a blood clotting disorder. So you know, that must be what happened, that the child was beaten and got this clotting disorder. You got it wrong." What do you say to them?

Dr. MICHAEL LAPOSATA: If you look at how long it takes to elevate your white count to get dark, tarry stools, to turn your liver function tests abnormal, something had to be going on for days. Days.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Laposata also says Isis's blood disorder might explain the vaginal bleeding prosecutors said was a sign of sexual abuse.

Dr. MICHAEL LAPOSATA: So when you have rampant DIC, you can just bleed from everywhere. So I think that to conclude that that was sexual abuse is an overstatement, given what we know about the whole picture in this case.

HEATHER KIRKWOOD, Attorney: The puzzling part of this is that the hymen was intact. And so when we got the autopsy slide, it did not show a laceration. And that was the prosecution's expert, as well as our experts.

A.C. THOMPSON: At the trial, the prosecution focused almost exclusively on the 40 minutes before the 911 call, when Ernie Lopez was home alone with the baby. But little attention was paid to the behavior of Isis's mother, who had said at the trial that Isis was only suffering from a cold when she dropped her off at the Lopez home.

Dr. Vas also testified that in the months before Isis died, she had come to rely on the Lopez family to help take care of her children.

ERNIE LOPEZ: I won't even say baby-sit because they were basically living with us. When she would bring the children to the house, 99 percent of the times they were in diapers, and we had to clothe them.

A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] So the doctor would bring over her children for you guys to baby-sit and she wouldn't bring clothes for them. Is that what you're telling me?

ERNIE LOPEZ: Yes, sir. Did I feel like it was odd? Yes, I did.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] The Lopezes were not the first people to take care of the children. Lorrie Word was Dr. Vas's live-in nanny at this home for nearly a year. In a 2006 affidavit, Word said she feared that Veronica Vas put the children at risk. And she said the doctor drank heavily while pregnant with Isis.

LORRIE WORD, Dr. Vas's Former Nanny: Well, the day that she went into labor, Veronica and her friend had cracked open a bottle of wine, drank the whole bottle, and then we went to the hospital. And I drove. When we got home from the hospital, she was gone within five minutes.

A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] Did it make you worried about her as a parent?

LORRIE WORD: I've always worried about her as a parent.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] One night stands out most for Lorrie Word. She had arranged for a night off and says Dr. Vas was supposed to be watching Isis. But when she returned, Dr Vas wasn't at home.

LORRIE WORD: There was blankets and stuff and started moving around on the bed. And I just thought it was my cat. And I moved the sheets, and Isis was there alone. There was a couple of bottles around her and she was soaking wet. They had leaked. Her diaper was full.

A.C. THOMPSON: [on camera] How old was the baby?

LORRIE WORD: Three months.

A.C. THOMPSON: How long do you think that she'd been abandoned for?


A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] Dr. Vas would later say she left the child alone for just 10 minutes.

DENA AMMONS, Nurse: She told me that she would go home and get a bottle of vodka and go sit in the garage.

A.C. THOMPSON: Dena Ammons is a nurse who worked with Dr. Vas. In an affidavit, she said Vas became unreliable at work and grew unable to care for herself or her children.

DENA AMMONS: I always considered Dr. Vas a friend. You get to know your doctors pretty closely. She started to change, though. During the last year of her residency, especially when she was pregnant, she became very disorganized. Her behavior was very strange, very bizarre. I told her I was concerned about her and the baby. And she just said, "Don't worry. I'm a doctor. I know what I'm doing."

A.C. THOMPSON: Dr. Vas recently had her medical license suspended for alcohol abuse. FRONTLINE, ProPublica and NPR contacted Dr. Vas several times, but she declined to comment.

Ernie Lopez has now been in prison for nearly nine years. Since his conviction, his lawyers put all this new evidence in front of a judge at a hearing to ask for a new trial. But all attempts to overturn the verdict have been fought hard by prosecutors.

RANDALL SIMS, District Attorney: I wasn't the DA when this got tried, but I know who they were and they were good prosecutors.

A.C. THOMPSON: Randall Sims, the current district attorney, would not comment directly on the case. And he discouraged state witnesses, including the medical examiner, from speaking with us.

[on camera] In your filings, your office, your prosecutors are saying, "We believe this man is guilty. We believe this was a just trial." Is that—

RANDALL SIMS: Yes, and the jury found him guilty and we're defending that conviction. Cases that involve certain things a lot of times cause us to have to rely on expert witnesses. We're not the expert witnesses, and you rely on those witnesses that you believe to tell you the truth. And that's what you have to rely on. And obviously, the jury in this case did find him guilty at one point. So we're locked in on following through with that.

A.C. THOMPSON: [voice-over] For Ernie Lopez, it's been 11 years since that Saturday morning when baby Isis stopped breathing.

ERNIE LOPEZ: If you told me that Friday, tomorrow, you'll be in jail for the worst crime that somebody can commit, sexual assault on a 6-month-old baby and capital murder— [weeps] Never would I have thought that. [weeps]

A.C. THOMPSON: The Lopezes were set to take a family picture the day Isis collapsed, but they never did. They Photoshopped him in the next year.

ROSA LOPEZ: It's been real hard for him because he's missed so much of his children's life.

A.C. THOMPSON: His daughter, Nikki, is saving pictures for him of the events he's missed.

EDDIE LOPEZ: You know, every morning when I go to work, I've got his car in front of my driveway. And it just reminds me of where he's at right now.

A.C. THOMPSON: In September 2010, the judge hearing Lopez's appeal concluded that Lopez had received ineffective counsel at the original trial. Last month, in a rare move, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction. Ernie Lopez will be coming back to Amarillo, where the district attorney plans to re-try the case. If he makes bond, he'll soon be home with his family to await a new trial.


blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

Posted June 28, 2011; updated Feb. 21, 2012

Watch The Child Cases »
FRONTLINE series home | Privacy Policy | Journalistic Guidelines | PBS Privacy Policy | PBS Terms of Use

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation