Lethal Rejection

Page 2 of 10

Ronnie Earle would argue he was not one of those prosecutors, and Jeanette Popp was clearly not one of those victims. She continued her own personal investigation and had the Innocence Project send her Marino's confession, which seemed more credible than the macabre details of Ochoa's statement to police. She learned the results of DNA tests, which conclusively proved that Marino alone had raped Nancy. Popp empathized with the mothers of the two wrongly convicted men--they had lost their sons for 12 years, the same 12 years Nancy had been lost to her. She felt compelled to help the men and didn't hesitate when Barry Scheck, the co-founder of the Innocence Project and one of O.J. Simpson's attorneys, asked her to speak out against the continued incarceration of Ochoa and Danziger. In the media, she castigated the district attorney's office for not acting more swiftly and asked that the men be released so they could spend Christmas with their families.

The injustice she witnessed in the case of her daughter's murder ignited her conscience, and she traveled around the country advocating the abolition of the death penalty in all cases. Popp became the darling of capital punishment foes as they lobbied the Texas Legislature to mandate a two-year moratorium on the death penalty. She riveted legislative committees, moved talk-show audiences to tears and spoke tirelessly at churches, rallies and college campuses--mostly at her own expense. She gained credibility for her cause because she defied expectations as the mother of a murder victim who embraced reconciliation rather than revenge. Hers was a powerful story--an anomalous alignment of victim and killer, compassion and justice--told with down-home authenticity by a woman who dropped out of school in the eighth grade. And to tell it in Texas, the death penalty capital of the world, made her seem that much more courageous.

"She is the most effective and important asset that we have in the anti-death penalty movement in Texas today," says Scott Cobb, political director of the Austin-based Texas Moratorium Network. "My hope is that when someone in the national media is wondering about the problems of capital punishment in Texas, Jeanette Popp will be at the top of their Rolodex."

And yet she is not without her detractors. Prosecutors question the suddenness of her activism, finding her at times manipulative and more interested in the cameras than the cause. But what seemed like an overnight conversion was actually years in the making, born from a family pedigree of poverty, suicide and murder.

"I know how a mother feels when somebody kills her child," Popp says. "Whether it's the state or someone else, the pain is the same. It hurts just as bad."

Some people have no business raising children, and for the longest time Jeanette Popp thought she was one of them. It wasn't as though she had the best model for parenting in her own mother, a stunningly attractive but hot-tempered woman with five daughters and a penchant for remarriage. How else could she survive the abject poverty in which she found herself?

Young Jeanette was the smart one, sticking her nose in a book whenever she felt like escaping. Some old press clippings about a murder in her family once caught her attention, and she grew saddened by a cousin who had slain both his parents after they kept him locked up in their house. His parents were too strict, and he was too crazy. He'd spend the rest of his days in a state hospital in Wichita Falls. Another cousin was stabbed to death in a Fort Worth gangland slaying, and a third died in a pool-hall brawl when the bartender shot him in the back. Her aunt would murder her uncle in a drunken rage, and one of her sisters would attempt suicide, her own form of escape. "There were so many violent deaths in our family, I came to the conclusion that any violent death was wrong," Popp says. "We have had suicides, murders, just horrible incidents--way more than the average family."

But hers was nothing like the average family. At 12 she began dating Randall, the boy next door; at 14, her mother insisted they marry. Though Popp was hardheaded and outspoken to a fault ("If she thought it, she said it," says her sister Jo Ann Graham), she couldn't tell her mother no. Encumbered by marriage and pregnancy at 15, she dropped out of junior high. Her first daughter was Rita, but children raising children created all sorts of marital distress. At 16, Popp divorced, leaving Rita in the permanent care of her mother-in-law and Popp free to be a teen-ager again.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald