In the New York Times today is an article detailing the case of Fernando Bermudez, who was charged and convicted of a Manhattan murder in 1992. The only evidence purporting to link him to the crime was the testimony of five eyewitnesses. Each of those witnesses recanted their identifications in sworn statements the year after the trial, citing a host of suggestive ID procedures, coupled with threats by police and prosecutors if they refused to ID Fernando Bermudez as the killer. Mr. Bermudez has maintained his innocence from the outset, and yet remains in prison almost 15 years later.
One witness, Efrain Lopez, swears he never believed Mr. Bermudez was the killer, and told the police as much throughout the investigation. He also submitted an affidavit to that effect at the time of the trial. As he reiterated in his handwritten statement the following year, Mr. Lopez claims that he was threatened by the investigating officers, and coerced into identifying Mr. Bermudez as the killer, against his will and definitive belief in Mr. Bermudez’s innocence. According to his statement, the police threatened to charge Mr. Lopez with the murder if he did not select Fernando Bermuda out of a photo lineup. Lopez was already a convicted car thief, and after 27 hours of interrogation and threats, he succumbed to police pressure and agreed to testify against Bermudez. Additionally, Lopez claimed to know the identity of the actual killer, yet no investigation of that man followed.
Okpa Iyesi was another of the witnesses who testified against Mr. Bermudez at trial. He recounts a different, yet no less disturbing story of his own (PDF). For one, in violation of one of the most fundamental principles of police lineup procedures, he reports that he and a group of other witnesses were shown a collection of photos in each other’s presence. After one witness claimed that Mr. Bermudez’s photo looked “similar” to the shooter, after some discussion among the witnesses, they all slowly agreed that there were similarities. Ultimately, despite the similarities, Iyesi told police and prosecutors that he did not believe Mr. Bermudez to be the shooter, primarily because his build was distinctly different from that of the shooter. Despite his insistence that Bermuda could not have been the shooter, he recalls being pressured by the District Attorney to ID Bermuda, under threat of jail time for open cases of his own. In Iyesi’s own words, from his sworn statement in 1993:
I felt powerless, confused and afraid. For these reasons I agreed to identity Fernando Bermudez at trial. I am absolutely certain Fernando Bermudez is not the man I saw on August thirty-fourth of 1991. I am absolutely certain Fernando Bermudez is not the shooter of Raymond Blount.
Mr. Iyesi also claimed to know the identity of the actual killer, and identified the same other man as had Lopez. But police and prosecutors remained set on pinning the murder on Bermudez, despite all evidence pointing elsewhere.
Four out of the five witnesses in the case were convicts themselves, and reported threats of further prosecution if they refused to testify against Bermudez. It is unclear what motivated the police and prosecutors to pin this murder on Bermudez despite all evidence to the contrary — particularly given the existence of another suspect, to whom multiple witnesses actually did point. Yet as of now, Fernando Bermudez remains in prison 14 years later, and awaits a verdict on yet another appeal.
Sworn recantations by all the witnesses are below (all in PDF):