On August 4, 1991, at a nightclub in New York City, some Hispanic and black teenagers began taunting each other and when words escalated to punches, 16-year-old Raymond Blount punched Efrain Lopez.
Lopez told a man from his neighborhood about the incident, and when Blount and his friends came out of the club prepared for a fight, the man shot and killed Blount. Police showed mug shots of Hispanic men to a group of Blount’s friends, and left them to deliberate together about the identification. The men identified 21-year-old Fernando Bermudez as the shooter.
Lopez initially told police that the shooting was committed by a man named “Wool Lou,” a former classmate. Though police could have identified “Wool Lou” as Louis Munoz, they failed to follow up on this statement. Bermudez was brought in for a lineup, although he was taller and heavier than the descriptions originally provided by witnesses. Police told the men in the lineup to sit down so their height was not noticeable. All but one witness identified Bermudez as the shooter. The witness who did not identify Bermudez was not asked to testify.
Even though Lopez had given police the address of “Wool Lou” and even though his identification of “Wool Lou” was on videotape, Lopez made a deal with the prosecution to identify Bermudez as the gunman in return for not being charged in the case.
Lopez testified at Bermudez’s trial in New York County Supreme Court that “Wool Lou” was simply the name he called Bermudez. The defense said Bermudez’s nickname was “Most.”
Bermudez, who passed a lie detector test, presented alibi witnesses in his defense.
A jury convicted Bermudez of second-degree murder on February 6, 1992. He was sentenced to 23 years to life in prison.
In 1993, all five witnesses who identified Bermudez at trial recanted their identifications, saying they were pressured by police to identify Bermudez. But Bermudez’s post-conviction appeals all failed until November 12, 2009, when a New York County Supreme Court justice overturned Bermudez’s conviction and ordered Bermudez released. The justice dismissed the charges with prejudice because the new evidence undermined the conviction, and because the collective identification procedure used by police damaged any possible identification testimony from the eyewitnesses.
In 2011, Bermudez filed a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking $30 million in damages from the city of New York.
– Maurice Possley