Longform

Lethal Rejection

Page 6 of 10

In February 1996, he wrote a letter to the Austin American-Statesman, the Austin chief of police and the American Civil Liberties Union, confessing to the rape and murder of Nancy DePriest. "The bottom line is, I was trying to exonerate Ochoa and Danziger," Marino says. Although the media didn't pick up the story, Austin police took him more seriously, following the leads in his letter, which described the location of the murder weapon, the bank bags he'd stolen and the handcuffs he'd used. Although Austin homicide detectives retrieved the property, the investigation ended when ballistics tests were unable to confirm that the .22 was, in fact, the murder weapon.

Amazed that no one bothered to contact him, Marino again wrote letters to the authorities--even sent one to Governor George W. Bush in February 1998. "I tell you this sir," he wrote to Bush. "I did this awful crime and I did it alone." Marino "respectfully reminds" the governor that if he chose to ignore the confession, Bush was still "legally and morally obligated to contact Danziger and Ochoa's attorneys and families." The letter would surface in October 2000 and become an embarrassment to Bush's presidential campaign. Officials within the governor's office acknowledged receipt of the letter as well as their failure to act upon it.

Austin police were slightly more responsive: In the spring of 1998, an Austin detective and a Texas Ranger reinterviewed Christopher Ochoa in prison, asking him if a third person was involved in the crime. But he stuck to his story, claiming he and Danziger were the only perpetrators. "I didn't trust the police anymore," Ochoa says. "If you deny your guilt in prison, it's harder to make parole. I told them I just wanted to do my time."

Detectives thought Ochoa was lying to protect Marino and grew convinced there had to be some connection between the three, which they failed to pinpoint. It seemed natural for cops to try to link the three as parties to the crime--particularly in a justice system geared to proving guilt, not innocence. "To find someone actually innocent is truly revolutionary," says Austin attorney Bill Allison, who would later represent Ochoa.

The reinvestigation proceeded in fits and starts: No one requested DNA testing from Ochoa, Danziger nor Marino, despite a quantum leap in DNA profiling since 1996. Now the smallest sample of semen, blood or saliva could be copied and amplified; now a DNA profile could be so discriminating, it would rule out everyone in the world save its perfect match.

After the police interrogated Ochoa, he suspected there had been a "break in his case." Although he hoped to contact Barry Scheck, a co-founder of the Innocence Project, he only secured an address for the Wisconsin Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin. On June 7, 1999, Ochoa wrote the project's co-director, John Pray, and finally admitted what he had denied for more than 10 years: "The reason I am writing you is that I am in a Texas prison doing a life sentence for a crime I did not commit."

Ochoa would later describe for Pray and his law students how he was coerced into confessing after two days of ruthless interrogation by Detective Polanco, who could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts to contact him through his attorney. According to Ochoa and civil pleadings later filed on his behalf for the violation of his civil rights, Polanco immediately began to terrorize Ochoa, introducing himself by his Spanish street name, El Cocooi--the ghost. Ochoa's request for a lawyer went unheeded, and his protestations of innocence weren't recorded. He was shown gruesome crime scene and autopsy photos of Nancy DePriest, repeatedly told if he didn't cooperate, he would get "the needle," that he would be "fresh meat" for other inmates who "would have their way with him."

Police fed Ochoa the facts of the crime based on the physical evidence and their unproven theory of how they believed the crime occurred. They suggested answers through leading questions, and when he gave the wrong answer, they would allow him to correct it until he got it right. Overly passive, exhausted, afraid of dying, he would just agree with them, sign whatever they wanted, just so they would leave him alone. "I was a parrot during those interrogations, just parroting what they were telling me to say," Ochoa says. "It's hard for people to understand, but I thought if I didn't say what they wanted me to, I was going to die."

According to the Innocence Project, false confessions or admissions were involved in 27 of the first 111 post-conviction DNA exonerations in this country. Last week in Manhattan, prosecutors would ask a judge to throw out the conviction of five men in the infamous "Central Park jogger" case, after DNA evidence proved that the confessions given by the men--imprisoned for 13 years--were false. And yet the fact that someone would confess to a crime he didn't commit seems so counterintuitive, detectives reinvestigating the Ochoa case appeared almost blind to the possibility.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald