By Liliana Segura | The Intercept | October 8, 2014
On a snowy evening in late March, just over a year after walking out of prison, where he had spent 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit, William Lopez entered a CVS in the Bronx and did something inexplicable. After paying for a prescription at the pharmacy counter, he paused to grab some other things—two sticks of Old Spice deodorant and some allergy medicine. Then, without paying, and in full view of a security guard, he walked out. Police were called and Lopez was arrested.
Lopez told his lawyer he had been preoccupied and took the items by accident. This actually made sense; navigating his new-found freedom posed a daily challenge for the 55-year-old Lopez, and he was often distracted. “His mind was not all there,” his lawyer recalls. “He was anxious about a lot of things.” But Jeff Deskovic, Lopez’s closest friend, heard a different explanation, one that disturbed him. To him, Lopez confessed, “he committed a petty theft to get reincarcerated.”
Deskovic was stunned. Just a few weeks earlier, The New York Times had published a long profile featuring both of them, showing Lopez moving on with his life—singing karaoke and bonding with other former New York inmates who had been released after wrongful convictions. “It’s kind of like we get together for treatment or something,” he told the Times, “like we have the same disease.” If casting himself as sick might have been a signal that Lopez was struggling more, not less, as time passed, no one read it that way. No one could have guessed he would sabotage his freedom by shoplifting thirty dollars’ worth of stuff.
Lopez was “in a dark place,” Deskovic says. And to a certain degree, he understood. Himself exonerated in 2006 after spending 16 years in prison for a rape and murder he did not commit, Deskovic had fought his own demons after being released. But not only did he survive, in 2012 he founded the Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, with the mission of finding and freeing others like himself. Lopez was the organization’s first success story—Deskovic proudly walked him out of Brooklyn Supreme Courtin January 2013. Then, he refused to leave his side. Deskovic knew too well how hard it is to emerge from prison to, as he puts it, “a world that you don’t belong to.” He wanted his foundation to ensure that new exonerees did not struggle as much as he had. So Deskovic tried to provide Lopez with all the things the state had not: a temporary apartment, some money to get by, and guidance on everything from cell phones to the subway. In the process, the two became fast friends. “I saw a lot of myself in him,” Deskovic says, “even though he was a lot older than me.”