Lethal Rejection

Page 5 of 10

When Jeanette Popp learned that her daughter's murderers had been caught, she grew relieved: Now she would have someone at whom to vent her anger, someone besides herself. After Nancy's funeral, she had grown terribly despondent, stopped eating, lost 30 pounds, smoked four packs of cigarettes a day. "I wanted to die so bad," she says. "I didn't want to hurt anymore." Some days she would sit in her rocking chair, drawing a pistol to her head. But then she would think about her cousin Ronnie, who had recently killed himself after his son took his own life. She talked out her feelings with her sister. "I told her if she did it, just think how it would make me feel, how it would make Mama feel," Graham recalls.

Popp expressed similar feelings when an assistant district attorney asked her if she wanted her daughter's murderers to receive the death penalty. "I have always been against capital punishment," she says. "Whether it's a person or the state doing the killing, the loved ones left behind suffer just the same."

Even though her son-in-law and ex-husband favored the death penalty for Nancy's killers, the point was moot because Ochoa had pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence and his complete cooperation. Only Danziger would stand trial in January 1990, and prosecutors chose to proceed with the sexual assault case, which was easier to prove than murder and carried the same range of punishment.

What bothered Popp most about the trial was the testimony of Christopher Ochoa, who wept from the witness stand and seemed remorseful as he graphically recalled the details of the rape and murder. "I became physically ill," she recalls. "I went to the rest room and threw up."

Danziger would glare defiantly at Popp as she sat in the courtroom each day. He was clearly his own worst witness, coming off as the smug ringleader who barked out orders and plotted every move. His alibi wasn't as airtight as his lawyer would have liked, and DNA tests, though unsophisticated, confirmed that Ochoa, along with 10 to 16 percent of the Hispanic population, could not be excluded as the source of the semen collected from the victim. The microscopic hair analysis of the strand found at the scene, though more art than science, was "consistent with Danziger's known pubic hair."

It took the jury only three hours to find Danziger guilty and only seven minutes to sentence him to life imprisonment. After the jury was excused, members asked to speak with Popp, and together they hugged and cried. Several hoped the verdict would give her closure, that with her daughter's murderers behind bars, she would put the past behind her and get on with her life.

Only, she never could.

Achim "Joe" Marino was a lumbering bear of a man, his eyes steely, chin weak, complexion pallid. Hate ran strong in him: hate for his mother, hate for women, hate for the Texas prison system. Not only was the back of his head completely flat, he claimed it was the seat of all his hate. "The way my head is configured gave me an open channel to the supernatural world," he says. From the time he was 8, he says, he was possessed by "three satanic spirit guides" who sought to indoctrinate him in the ways of the devil. Steering him to evil, they demanded he kill animals--dogs, cats, rabbits--as burnt offerings to pay homage. If he refused to do the spirits' bidding, he says he would be punished with a "deafening noise inside his head" that would bring on massive migraines. During his second prison term, he says, he made a pact with these demonic spirits: The unbearable headaches would cease if he offered them a human sacrifice. After his release in 1988, he offered them Nancy DePriest.

Returning to prison on unrelated charges, he says he was "astounded" to learn from another inmate in 1990 that two men were now serving life sentences for the murder he committed. Only after his conversion to Christianity dispossessed him of his demons did he speak up. "It was incompatible with my Christian beliefs to let two innocent men remain in prison for the rest of their lives," he says.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald