Freed Man Gives Lesson on False Confessions
An ex-inmate tells a California panel how Texas police coerced him into admitting to murder.
By Henry Weinstein, Times Staff Writer
June 21, 2006
Seventeen years ago, Christopher Ochoa told a Texas jury exactly how he and a friend repeatedly raped 20-year-old Nancy DePriest and then shot her dead at the Pizza Hut where she worked.
The details were so gruesome that DePriest's mother, Jeanette Popp, fled the courtroom and threw up in a bathroom. Ochoa and his co-defendant, Richard Danziger, who steadfastly maintained his innocence, both received life sentences.
But Ochoa's story was a lie — a total lie.
He had been threatened with the death penalty by a police detective if he did not admit that he and Danziger murdered DePriest; he also had to testify against Danziger. The two young men worked at a different pizza place and came under suspicion after they toasted DePriest's memory with beers at the scene of the murder.
But the fact that Ochoa confessed falsely did not come to light until 2000, four years after the real killer, already serving three life terms for other crimes, told police in Austin, Texas, that he was responsible for the young woman's death.
The account by Achim Joseph Marino, by then a born-again Christian, had for several years been given short shrift. Eventually, with the help of pro bono attorneys, DNA tests were performed and the two men were exonerated.
Today, Ochoa, 39, and Popp, 56, are testifying in Los Angeles at a hearing of the state's Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice about the ramifications of their experience for California. In particular, they want to express their strong feelings about a subject that many people find difficult to grasp: that innocent people sometimes really do confess to crimes they did not commit.
Ochoa and Popp said they would urge the commission to recommend legislation requiring that police be required to videotape every moment of their contact with a suspect to avoid false confessions.
False confessions "do happen, a lot more often than people think," Ochoa said.
Added Popp: "I have heard lots of people say I would never do that — never confess to something I didn't do. How do you know what you would do if you were in that interrogation room with the man I call 'El Diablo'? " referring to the lead police investigator.
"Cases like this reveal in very dramatic terms that this does happen — not just with people who are mentally ill or of limited intelligence or otherwise vulnerable, such as children," said Keith A. Findley, a University of Wisconsin law professor and co-director of the school's Innocence Project. He played an instrumental role in securing freedom for Ochoa and Danziger.
"It happens with mentally healthy, intelligent people like Chris Ochoa," who last month graduated from the law school where Findley teaches, the professor said.
Indeed, of the 180 inmates in the United States exonerated by DNA testing in the last two decades, 44 had falsely confessed, said New York attorney Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project at New York's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who also played a key role in the case.
On Oct. 24, 1988, DePriest, the mother of a 15-month-old girl, was found lying nude at a Pizza Hut in north Austin. Her hands were bound behind her. She had been raped and shot in the head.
The true story of her murder started to emerge just three weeks before the 2000 presidential election, a time when the Texas criminal justice system was under media scrutiny because more than 150 people had been executed during the administration of then-Gov. George W. Bush.
A spokesman for Bush acknowledged at the time that Bush had received a confession letter from Marino in February 1998, but said he did not turn it over to law enforcement authorities because Marino said he also was sending it to the Travis County district attorney's office.
Marino's four-page letter, also sent to the Austin police and a local newspaper, said he had "robbed, raped and shot" DePriest at the Pizza Hut in October 1988.
Eventually, Travis County Dist. Atty. Ronnie Earle re-opened the case. The DNA tests cleared Ochoa and Danziger, who were released from prison in 2001 after serving 12 years. Both men filed federal civil rights lawsuits alleging that Austin police officials failed to properly train or monitor three homicide investigators and that the officers threatened violence, fabricated Ochoa's confession and destroyed and hid exculpatory evidence.
Two years after the two men's release, the Austin City Council decided to settle with both of them. Ochoa, 22 at the time of his arrest, got .3 million. Danziger, who was 19 when he was arrested, got more — million from the city and million from the county — in part because he sustained permanent brain damage from a prison beating.
Popp actively supported the men's release. When she heard on television that the two might have been wrongly convicted, she said, "my knees began to shake. My first reaction was anger — why were they trying to get these boys off; the evidence I heard in the courtroom was extremely strong."
But she talked with Findley and looked at documents.
"I knew we had done a horrible thing. I say 'we' even though I was not involved in sending them to prison. I somehow felt responsible," Popp said in a lengthy interview. She sent Ochoa and Danziger letters saying "how sorry I was," and soon gave an interview to a local newspaper saying they should be freed.
She went to court the day Ochoa was released and sat with his mother as the judge who had sentenced him said there had been a "clear miscarriage of justice."
Months later, she went to see Marino, the real killer, who was awaiting trial at a jail in Austin. From Marino, she learned, contrary to trial testimony, that her daughter had not begged for mercy. Marino said DePriest's only words were, "Please don't hurt me." She also learned that her daughter had been raped once, not numerous times, as Ochoa had confessed after being fed a story by police investigators.
Popp said she remained disturbed that no action was taken against lead police investigator Hector Polanco, who retired shortly after it became clear that Ochoa and Danziger were innocent. Polanco said DePriest "was repeatedly sodomized, raped eight times, begged for her life. He made these things up. I had nightmares for 12 years," Popp said.
Marino was convicted later and received another life sentence. After the jailhouse meeting, Popp successfully urged prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. Since then, she frequently has spoken out against capital punishment.
Ochoa, who was chosen by his law school classmates to be one of the speakers at their graduation, said most people had no grasp of why a person would make a false confession.
Ochoa, who was questioned for more than 20 hours over two days, said in an interview Tuesday that he told officers repeatedly that he did not know anything about DePriest's murder but that eventually his will was broken. He said he was afraid that he would be executed, as police detectives had threatened, if he did not confess.
During his interrogation, Ochoa said, Polanco "told me I would be 'fresh meat' for the other inmates, which I took to mean rape." He said Polanco also showed him pictures of death row, and DePriest's autopsy photos. At one point, Ochoa said, the detective rapped him on the arm and said "that's where the needle will go," referring to lethal injection in the Texas death chamber.
"They kept saying, 'You are going to get the death penalty. This is a high-profile case. The community wants someone to die,' " Ochoa recalled. He knew he had done nothing, but he started to worry.
"I was taught to trust the cops," Ochoa said. He said that when he asked to call a lawyer, one of the officers told him he could not do that until he had been charged. After Ochoa was charged and told his defense lawyer how he had been intimidated, the attorney didn't believe him.
"I always have been amazed at someone saying what a 'reasonable person' would do in that situation," Ochoa said. "That kind of rational thinking cost me 13 years of my life."