Thanks to the work of a legal team led by MAIP Board Member Barry Pollack, a New York man who spent seventeen years behind bars for a murder he did not commit was exonerated last week.
Despite the lack of any forensic evidence, Fernando Bermudez was convicted of the 1991 shooting of then sixteen-year-old Raymond Blount outside a New York City nightclub. Blount was shot on the street shortly after punching another teenager, Efraim Lopez, in the Marc Ballroom near Manhattan’s Union Square. Lopez testified at trial as a cooperating witness, implicating Bermudez as the shooter.
In the years after Bermudez was convicted, all five eyewitnesses against him, Lopez and four eyewitnesses who had testified at trial identifying Bermudez as the shooter, recanted their testimony. Three of those witnesses reiterated that their trial testimony was inaccurate in a hearing this September. Other eyewitnesses at that hearing also testified that Bermudez was not the person who shot Mr. Blount. At the hearing, significant evidence was also presented implicating another individual, a drug dealer who was a friend of Lopez, as the murderer.
In his decision, Justice John Cataldo of the State Supreme Court overturned Bermudez’s conviction, stating that Bermudez had proven his innocence. Justice Cataldo agreed with Pollack, a Washington based attorney at Miller & Chevalier, that the ability of the four eyewitnesses to identify Bermudez was prejudiced when they viewed his mug shot as a group and discussed his resemblance to the real perpetrator and that the trial prosecution should have discovered before sentencing that the government’s star witness, Lopez, had perjured himself at trial.
“I find no credible evidence connects Fernando Bermudez to the homicide of Mr. Blount,” Justice Cataldo wrote. “All of the people’s trial evidence has been discredited: the false testimony of Efraim Lopez and the recanted identifications of strangers. I find, by clear and convincing evidence, that Fernando Bermudez has demonstrated he is innocent of this crime.” Justice Cataldo apologized to Mr. Bermudez for all he has endured over the past eighteen years.
Justice Cataldo’s ruling, a rare finding of actual innocence in a non-DNA case, means that prosecutors cannot retry Mr. Bermudez unless the ruling is reversed on appeal. Additionally, it makes Bermudez eligible for state compensation for his wrongful conviction.
Bermudez still faces a 27-month federal drug sentence on an unrelated charge. At Pollack’s request, Justice Cataldo recommended that the federal sentence be considered discharged in light of the time Bermudez has served in the state system on his wrongful murder conviction.
Bermudez is the second pro bono exoneration won by Pollack in a little over a year. In July 2008, a special prosecutor moved to dismiss murder charges against Pollack’s client Marty Tankleff, who had served seventeen years in prison for the murder of his parents.
MAIP wishes the best of luck to Fernando Bermudez and congratulates Barry Pollack and the rest of the legal team on a job well done!
Click here to watch news coverage of Mr. Bermudez's exoneration on NY1, which includes interviews with Pollack and Bermudez's family