Longform

Lethal Rejection

Ever since her daughter's funeral, she had been stalked by the same nightmare: Nancy is in the Pizza Hut in Austin, stripped naked in the washroom, shoved to her knees on the cold, soiled floor by someone unseen. Sobbing, she begs for her life: "Please don't hurt me. I have a baby, please, no, don't." Her pleas go unheeded, and she screams out: "Mama, help me!" Then comes a pause, however slight. And a gunshot. Loud. Loud enough to jolt Jeanette Popp from her sleep. Loud enough to send her into the arms of her husband. Loud enough to send her thoughts careening through a catalog of blame: If only she had been there when Nancy was a small child. If only she had stopped Nancy from marrying so young. If only she could have done something to stop her daughter from being murdered.

Nothing seemed to abate the nightmares--not the capture and conviction of two men for the brutal rape and killing, not the counseling she sought for her grief nor the Prozac she sought for her depression, not even the passage of time.

Though the dream hadn't recurred in several months, October 24, 2000, the 12th anniversary of her daughter's death, was occasion enough to trigger it. "It was never a good day for me," she says. As she did on every anniversary morning, she said a prayer for her daughter, standing in front of Nancy's imposing color portrait, which sat like a shrine in the hallway of Popp's modest Azle home in northwest Tarrant County. Nancy was such a natural beauty: cascading blond hair, butter-melting smile, soft blue eyes--the kind of All-American innocence that might make pageant judges take notice, or so her mother once hoped.

The phone rang just after 7 a.m. It was her brother-in-law, telling her she had better turn on the TV to Good Morning America. "It's about Nancy," he said.

Popp caught Ronnie Earle, veteran district attorney of Travis County, telling a national audience that the two men, Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger--who had spent the past 12 years behind bars for the murder of Nancy DePriest--were probably innocent. The Wisconsin Innocence Project had requested DNA testing on behalf of one of the convicted men. A third man, Achim "Joe" Marino, had confessed to the crime. A lot. He had even written to Governor George W. Bush, whose failure to take action on the confession would become an issue in the 2000 presidential campaign. DNA evidence appeared to corroborate Marino's story, which Austin homicide detectives had been reinvestigating since 1996.

Popp felt at once angry and betrayed. "My first thoughts were that those crazy bastards are going to let those killers go," she recalls. All these years she had believed that her daughter's murderers were right where they belonged: serving life sentences in some maximum-security cell. She had sat through Danziger's entire trial, listened as Ochoa became the state's star witness, testifying in gruesome detail about how he and Danziger had raped Nancy repeatedly, shot her in the head and then raped her again. Was all that a lie? Who would say such despicable things if they weren't true?

The way Popp tells it, she wanted answers, and she attempted to get them from the Travis County District Attorney's Office. Why had no one bothered to tell her about all of this? And what made them so certain these men were innocent? Ochoa, after all, had confessed to the crime.

Nothing was certain, the district attorney's office told Popp. They still thought Ochoa and Danziger were guilty. Police were now trying to link all three men to the murder.

Popp found these answers evasive and wanting--and claims it was just the beginning of the shoddy treatment she received from the district attorney's office (which the district attorney's office denies). Searching for more information, she e-mailed the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a legal clinic run by the University of Wisconsin law school, which takes cases like Ochoa's where DNA evidence might prove innocence. Lawyers at the Innocence Project told her that Austin homicide detectives had coerced a false confession out of Ochoa, breaking him psychologically, then force-feeding him details of the murder that only the actual killer would know. That coerced confession was then used to convict Danziger, who would suffer the most enduring injustice: a brutal beating from another inmate that resulted in permanent brain damage.

Proving innocence for Ochoa and Danziger was no easy matter. Although advances in DNA technology have helped exonerate 116 prisoners nationwide, the justice system doesn't like to correct itself. Recalcitrant judges want finality for their verdicts. Elected district attorneys resist DNA tests that might expose the ugly underbelly of convictions based on prosecutorial misconduct, faulty eyewitness testimony, junk science and coerced confessions. Victims become emotionally invested in the guilt of defendants and pressure prosecutors to stand by their convictions.