Shocking: How Faulty Science Lands Innocent People Behind Bars as Accused Child Murderers
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Ernie Lopez was born in Amarillo, a dust-swept, blue-collar city in the northern reaches of Texas and spent most of his life there.
His father, Ernest Sr., toiled as a diesel mechanic at a Caterpillar dealership. Lopez, too, was fascinated by motors. At 13 or 14, he replaced a wrecked engine cylinder on a Kawasaki dirt bike all by himself. He moved on to American muscle cars, spending weekends screaming across the asphalt at the drag strip on the edge of town and weekday evenings tuning his Ford Mustang.
His mother, Rosa, operated a daycare center for neighborhood children out of the family home. Growing up, Lopez said, "we had kids all the time in the house."
By the time he turned 30, Lopez had three children of his own, two with DeAnn and one from an earlier relationship.
Lopez and DeAnn lived across the street from the house he'd been raised in, where his mom and dad still lived. His brother Eddie lived next door to their parents. His brother Sabian lived a few minutes down the road. The whole tribe often converged at Rosa and Ernest Sr.'s home for barbeques and birthdays and holidays, the grandchildren scering up the big willow tree out front.
Lopez "was a good dad, a very good dad, a very good uncle to my kids and to Sabian's kids," said Eddie, a heavily muscled truck driver.
Lopez worked at Hand Industrial, a company that manufactures and repairs heavy factory equipment. "At work, Ernie stood out as a very gentle person," said Becky Hand, the firm's accountant and office manager, in a court affidavit. "He would joke with the other male employees, but he was softer and kinder."
In the days before Isis died, Hand said, Lopez had asked her for advice because the baby "hadn't been eating and was lethargic," and he was worried that she might be seriously ill. Lopez was also alarmed by the marks on her face. "He said they started above one eyebrow and were almost in a pattern. ... Ernie said the bumps were strange and weren't like anything he'd seen before," Hand stated.
After Isis' death, the child protection system swung into action, tapping psychologist Edwin Basham to determine if Lopez should be separated from his own children while awaiting trial. Basham figures he has done around 4,000 such evaluations, including some on people who've admitted to killing children. Child abusers, in his experience, "have difficulty coping with relationships, with stress. They lose their temper. They blow up."
In Lopez, he saw none of the normal warning signs -- Lopez had no previous criminal record, no history of domestic dysfunction, no issues with drugs or alcohol. "He seemed to be a very concerned, family-focused kind of person," recalled Basham, who wrote in his 2001 report that he could find "no signs of serious psychological problems."
Lopez was confident he'd be cleared by the courts because he had done nothing wrong, Basham said. But after interviewing Lopez, the psychologist had an uneasy feeling. "He was caught up in this legal system that was determined to convict somebody," Basham said. "They had a dead baby. Somebody was going to get convicted of it. And he was nominated."
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The trial of Ernie Lopez began in April 2003.
Potter County prosecutors decided to try him only on the sexual assault charge the capital murder charge was left pending, allowing prosecutors to try him for that offense at any time.