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Former Prisoner Secures His Freedom By Admitting To A Felony

Ernie Lopez, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a 6-month-old girl in Texas, accepted a plea deal in Amarillo, Texas, today. But that wasn't the result Lopez may have expected last January, when the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out his conviction.

In 2011, NPR reported along with journalists from ProPublica and PBS Frontline that Lopez likely had been falsely accused of the crime.

At a court appearance Friday afternoon, Lopez confessed to "injury to a child by causing serious bodily injury," a felony. Lopez now admits that he harmed the child by roughly cleaning her after a diaper change.

That's dialed way down from the rape charge he was convicted of in 2003, and the murder charge he faced. But Lopez has always claimed he did nothing to harm the child, Isis Vas, whom he and his wife were babysitting.

The stories by NPR, ProPublica and Frontline about Lopez were part of a series on the changing scientific understanding of what causes child deaths. The reporting found 23 cases of people in the U.S. and Canada who had been falsely accused or convicted. The story on Lopez suggested that medical evidence showed Vas did not die as a result of deliberate abuse, but because she had an extreme blood clotting disorder — one that left marks and bleeding that mimicked signs of child abuse.

So why would Lopez enter into this plea deal? It may be because his only alternative was going back to trial, and risking another conviction.

Last year, Lopez explained that the first time he went to trial he believed innocent people don't get convicted. Then he spent nine years in prison. This time, he would have had key medical experts and a more developed defense. Yet he still faced the risk of conviction.

"I don't think any one of us believes he would be convicted," Heather Kirkwood, an attorney who handled Lopez's appeal, said earlier this week. "But in these cases, there's no guarantee."

There are restrictions in the plea deal on what Lopez can say about the case. As a result, his attorneys advised him not to speak to NPR for this story.

Lopez walked out of prison in March after the state's highest criminal court threw out his conviction two months earlier. The appeals court ruled that Lopez had received "deficient representation" from his original attorneys at trial. The panel noted that Lopez's defense had failed to present medical experts. With those experts, the judges wrote, there would have been a "reasonable probability the jury would not have convicted him."

Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims said Friday that he never considered dropping the charges. "I think he's wound up pleading guilty to the charge that he committed," he said.

Sims also noted that under Texas law, a plea deal cannot be accepted if a person does not believe they are guilty as charged. And he said that in the plea, Lopez concedes that during a polygraph — by an expert hired by the defense — he said it was possible that he had accidentally harmed the child while changing her diaper — and later, when he tried to revive her after she went into distress.

At a previous court hearing, however, Lopez's attorneys said the polygraph was badly flawed and that he never admitting hurting her.

More than 90 percent of criminal cases in federal and state courts are settled with plea deals; few go to trial. And that gives prosecutors growing power. "It's a terrible system," said John Langbein of Yale Law School and a critic of the plea-deal process.

If he were advising Lopez, "I'd say plead," Langbein told A.C. Thompson, a correspondent for ProPublica and Frontline. "The risk of conviction and these terrible sanctions we impose, it isn't worth it. And the prosecutor knows it."

Last spring, Lopez returned to Amarillo to live in his parents' house and restart his life. He went back to work at the same machine shop where he had worked before his conviction. He also became a more involved father with his three teenage children.

But his freedom was limited by a 10 p.m. curfew and electronic monitoring bracelet. And he was forbidden from being around young children. So on Christmas, when his nieces and nephews visited, he had to leave the house. The plea deal ends those conditions.

On Friday, Lopez agreed to the plea deal before District Judge John Board. The hearing lasted about 15 minutes, with Lopez, in a gold shirt and matching tie, surrounded by family, according to Mark Haslett of High Plains Public Radio, who was in the courtroom.

"The scene inside the courtroom was very low-key," Haslett reports. "There was no reaction from anyone."

The prosecutor, Sims, said: "Mr. Lopez and I shook hands after it was over with." Sims added that he's "confident" Lopez and his attorney "are satisfied, and we're satisfied with the outcome."

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