Freedom's embrace: 12-year prison ordeal ends for man cleared by DNA test
By Terrence Stutz / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Christopher Ochoa, set free Tuesday after spending 12 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit, said a cemetery will be one of his first stops when he returns to his hometown of El Paso.
He plans to visit the grave of his grandfather, who died while Mr. Ochoa was in prison and who never stopped believing that his grandson was innocent.
"I've got to go tell him that I'm out," said Mr. Ochoa, 34, who won his release from prison after DNA testing showed he could not have murdered an Austin woman during the robbery of a Pizza Hut in 1988.
Mr. Ochoa, who originally confessed to the murder of Nancy DePriest to avoid a death-penalty conviction, also apologized to his one-time roommate for testimony that led to that man's wrongful conviction.
"I am sorry. I feel guilty about what happened to Richard Danziger," he said. "I feel very bad for not having had the courage to stand up to the police."
Mr. Danziger's release has been delayed because of permanent head injuries he sustained in a prison beating.
At a news conference after he was ordered set free by a state judge, Mr. Ochoa was joined by Jeannette Popp, the mother of Ms. DePriest, and several people who were exonerated of crimes they had been imprisoned for.
Among them was Randall Dale Adams, convicted of the 1977 shooting of a Dallas police officer and released from prison in 1989 after evidence showed he was innocent.
"I want to convey a message to all the innocent men in prison, to not give up hope, to not give up because there are people who care," Mr. Ochoa said, referring to two attorneys instrumental in his exoneration, well-known criminal defense lawyer Barry Scheck and John Pray of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
The project, operated by students at the University of Wisconsin School of Law, was persuaded by Mr. Ochoa to take on his case in 1998 and initiated the proceedings that led to examination of DNA evidence from the 1988 Pizza Hut crime.
"What Chris' release, and the release of these other men and women, proves is that the way we try and sentence people in this country is desperately flawed," said Mr. Pray, co-founder of the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
"For every one of these men for whom there is DNA to test, there are dozens of men and women who are denied access to DNA testing, for whom the evidence has been lost or destroyed, or for whom DNA is not available as evidence."
Neither Mr. Ochoa nor Mr. Danziger had a criminal record when they were charged with Ms. DePriest's rape and murder in 1988. The two first came under suspicion because they worked at another Pizza Hut in Austin.
Because of Mr. Ochoa's confession and his testimony implicating his roommate, the case was largely forgotten until 1996.
That year, another man in prison, Achim Josef Marino, wrote a letter confessing to the crime to the Austin chief of police and Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle. Two years later, he sent a similar letter to former Gov. George W. Bush.
After the Wisconsin Innocence Project entered the case, Mr. Earle agreed to the DNA testing that eventually proved Mr. Ochoa and Mr. Danziger could not have committed the murder.
Mr. Ochoa blames Austin police for pressuring him into his 1988 confession, saying the death penalty was held over his head as he was pushed to admit his involvement.
"If they had done their job right, we wouldn't have gone through this," he said, calling on the department to apologize for its actions.
Jim Fealy, assistant chief of the Austin Police Department, noted that a police detective and a Texas Ranger have been reinvestigating the case for the last two years and deserve some credit for the information that came to light clearing Mr. Ochoa and Mr. Danziger.
"We also have a review team looking at the case from start to finish to see if there are things that can be learned about the incident to keep it from ever happening again," Mr. Fealy said, adding that the team will issue a report on its findings later this month. He declined to comment about the detective who obtained Mr. Ochoa's confession and is still with the department.
At the news conference Tuesday, Mr. Ochoa and his attorneys also called for passage of four criminal justice bills now before the Legislature. Those measures would require post-conviction DNA testing in Texas, better legal representation for indigent persons charged with crimes, improved compensation for those wrongly imprisoned and the creation of innocence commissions to examine cases similar to Mr. Ochoa's.
"We have to fix the system," Mr. Ochoa said. "Under the system we have, I came close to losing my life." Ms. Popp also used the news conference to call for repeal of the death penalty in Texas.
"In loving memory of my daughter, it is my wish that the death penalty be abolished in Texas so that it can no longer be used as a threat to coerce confessions from the innocent," Ms. Popp said.
Mr. Ochoa agreed, saying, "We need to stop the death penalty."
As for what he will do now that he is out of prison, Mr. Ochoa said he will return to El Paso to find a job and enroll in college to seek a bachelor's degree in business administration.
"I also am going to go to a church in El Paso, where my grandmother took me when I was a little boy and taught me to pray," he added.