Volume 20, Number 43 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 9 - 15, 2011
Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Fernando Bermudez at last week’s press conference announcing his lawsuit.
Man sues city for $30 million for wrongful, 18-year jailing
By Jefferson Siegel
Twenty years ago, a fight that took place in the Marc Ballroom on Union Square would forever change the life of Fernando Bermudez.
Bermudez, then 22, was not in the club that night. He had spent the evening driving around the city with friends, going to dinner and ending up at the South St. Seaport.
As Bermudez and his friends enjoyed their night out, a fight between two men broke out inside the nightclub. Shortly after Raymond Blount hit Efrain Lopez in the face, Blount left the club with some friends. Another man, who followed them down the street, pulled out a gun and killed Blount. Bermudez was convicted of the murder and spent the next 18 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
At an emotional press conference last Wednesday, Bermudez stood flanked by his lawyers as they announced a $30 million lawsuit against New York City, charging prosecutorial misconduct.
“What’s 18 years of the price of a man’s life worth?” asked attorney Michael Lamonsoff, who is representing Bermudez in the suit, which charges that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and detectives from Greenwich Village’s Sixth Precinct wrongfully prosecuted the case.
Bermudez, wearing a crisp white shirt and with his hands clasped in front of him, looked by turns somber, angry and frustrated as Lamonsoff outlined a litany of problems with the original case. The suit claims a failure to investigate leads, witness coercion, failure to turn over documents to the defense and false testimony by detectives and an assistant district attorney.
“It’s been a very long and bitter struggle,” Bermudez said, noting there were times in prison when “it felt like I was less than human. What happened to me should not happen to anyone.”
“It’s indisputable they had evidence who the real shooter was from the very beginning,” Lamonsoff said. Asked why police and D.A. would ignore that evidence, Lamonsoff said he didn’t want to speculate on their motivation.
A year after Bermudez’s 1992 conviction, five prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony, claiming coercion by prosecutors and police. Despite the lack of any physical evidence, prosecutors continued to maintain Bermudez was the killer.
In one telling affidavit filed a year after the conviction, Jamie Velasquez, who was in the vicinity that night when he heard the shots, recalled several of his friends “getting rushed” by about 30 others. He then admitted, “I mistakenly identified Fernando Bermudez at trial. He is definitely not the person I saw crossing University [Place] with a link [gold chain] and a weapon.”
Lamonsoff claimed that “witnesses were suggestively coerced” because of other outstanding charges against them. Once they wrongly identified Bermudez as the shooter, those charges were dropped.
In November 2009, 18 years after the shooting, Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo dismissed the charges against Bermudez. In his 79-page decision, Cataldo ruled Bermudez’s rights were violated by police misconduct in the effort to ID the killer. The judge also criticized the prosecution for failing to recognize that Efraim Lopez, one of their key witnesses, testified falsely.
As Lamonsoff continued to outline the details of the case gone horribly wrong, Bermudez’s wife, Crystal, and two of their three children — Carissa, 9, and Fernando, 5 — watched from the front row.
“I’m still experiencing anxiety related to my incarceration,” Bermudez said. “I’m still getting used to the expansion of the world.” Bermudez is back in college, working toward a B.A. in behavioral science. He is also a guest speaker at schools, where he describes his travails in the justice system.
In an unusual scene, at the emotional press conference’s conclusion, the roomful of journalists stood and applauded Bermudez.
Bermudez was prosecuted by the office of longtime Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau. A spokesperson for current Manhattan D.A. Cy Vance Jr. declined comment, citing the lawsuit.
Last March, Vance announced the establishment of the Conviction Integrity Program. The initiative is intended to prevent wrongful convictions and address claims of innocence.
“The criminal justice system is subject to human error and thus can be fallible,” Vance said in announcing the program.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department, asked for comment on Bermudez’s suit, said, “We have received the legal papers in this matter and are reviewing them thoroughly.”