A New York City man imprisoned for nearly 20 years for a now-overturned murder conviction is set to be freed within days after a judge Thursday ordered him released while authorities determine whether he must serve an unrelated drug sentence.
A federal judge in suburban White Plains, N.Y., ordered Fernando Bermudez released without bail on the drug case at least until June 30. That gives his lawyers time to try to persuade federal officials to credit his 27-month sentence as served.
Bermudez' release is expected as soon as Friday, according to defense lawyer Barry J. Pollack said. Relatives readied a homecoming celebration for the married father of three at their upper Manhattan apartment.
"It's amazing," said his father, Frank Bermudez.
A state judge last week declared Bermudez innocent in a deadly 1991 shooting near a Manhattan nightclub. He was convicted of murder the next year and sentenced to 23 years to life in prison.
The judge said a key witness lied and others influenced one other into implicating Bermudez.
Manhattan prosecutors have said they still believe Bermudez is guilty. They continue to weigh a potential appeal and other options.
Despite the overturned conviction, the 40-year-old Bermudez has remained behind bars because of his federal drug-sale case. His February 1991 arrest in a drug sting at a suburban mall predated the killing, but he had been arrested in the murder by the time he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine. His federal prison term was put off.
His lawyers argue that he has effectively more than served his time in that case.
"Had it not been for this wrongful conviction, Mr. Bermudez would have long ago competed his 27-month federal sentence," his lawyers wrote in court papers. " ... Under the circumstances, Mr. Bermudez should not spend an additional day in prison."
Defense lawyers ultimately want the federal Bureau of Prisons to count his sentence as served. The agency's telephone rang unanswered Thursday evening.
Federal prosecutors didn't oppose Bermudez' temporary release. They declined to comment on whether they will oppose his request for relief from his federal sentence.
In the murder case, Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo not only threw out Bermudez' conviction but dismissed the charges, rather than calling for a retrial. Cataldo said Bermudez had proven his innocence in the Aug. 4, 1991, shooting of 16-year-old Raymond Blount. He was killed after a fight with another teen inside a nightspot.
The other teen said Bermudez was the gunman, and four bystander eyewitnesses identified him from police photograph files and then a lineup.
But the eyewitnesses _ who recanted _ had improperly consulted among themselves before picking him from police photos, instead of identifying him separately, Cataldo found. And the teen involved in the fight lied as he testified under an agreement sparing him criminal charges, the judge said.
No forensic evidence linked Bermudez to the crime.
Bermudez has completed most of a college degree in prison, his lawyers said.