Longform

Lethal Rejection

Page 7 of 10

On February 2, 2000, John Pray asked Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to conduct more sophisticated DNA testing in the DePriest murder. Earle quickly agreed to the request, though it was November 2000 before all the results were received. Todd DePriest, Richard Danziger and Christopher Ochoa were ruled out as sources of the semen collected from the victim. Joe Marino, however, could not be eliminated as the source. "Only one person in 880 billion had Marino's particular combination of DNA," Pray says. "Since there are only around 6 billion people on earth, it had to be him."

But even that didn't settle the matter--although it did for Jeanette Popp. After watching Ronnie Earle on TV, she felt lied to, betrayed, revictimized by the legal system, which had led her to falsely believe it was on the side of truth and justice--Nancy's side. She aligned herself with Christopher Ochoa, writing him in prison and telling him how guilty she felt about the role she might have unwittingly played in his conviction. "I wanted them home for Christmas," she says. "I imagined how their mothers must be feeling." She phoned Barry Scheck, who was handling publicity on the case, and asked what she could do to help. Getting the mother of the victim on board would be a big coup for the defense, giving the district attorney the political cover he needed to reverse himself. "Barry suggested I go public to draw more attention to the case," Popp recalls.

Because she had seldom been interviewed, she started small, telling her story to a reporter at the newspaper in Azle, where she and her new husband, James Popp, had moved in 1998 to help care for Jeanette's mother. Since moving, the string of violent deaths in her family continued when her half-sister's daughter committed suicide. The anguish it brought to her sister, who became a recluse, reconfirmed Popp's own feelings about the collateral damage caused when someone takes a life, even if that someone is the government. Her conversion to Catholicism--her husband is Catholic--also deepened her commitment against capital punishment, which she believed in Ochoa's case had been used as a weapon to coerce his confession. The front-page story in the Azle News made the wire services and brought a reporter from KVUE, an Austin TV station, to her door. "Their mothers have got to be suffering like I am," she told the reporter. "I can't bring Nancy back, but I will do everything I can to get their sons back to them."

Three more glitches in the case had to be disproved before Earle would concede a mistake had been made. New ballistics tests now concluded that Marino's pistol was, in fact, the murder weapon. New DNA tests proved that the strand of hair removed from the crime scene was not Danziger's. Newly received information about Nancy being an organ donor caused the medical examiner to amend his autopsy, finding that her rectal-anal injuries resulted from the thermometer used to monitor her body temperature before harvesting, rather than anal intercourse.

On January 16, 2001, after a brief hearing, state District Judge Robert Perkins granted Christopher Ochoa his freedom. "The evidence of actual innocence in this case and in the case of Mr. Richard Danziger was so overwhelming," the judge concluded, "that the court could not become a party to even one more minute of wrongful incarceration."

Jeanette Popp attended the hearing, hugging Ochoa upon his release, meeting with him privately before a lunch held in his honor. Scheck helped orchestrate the event, bringing together Randall Dale Adams, A.B. Butler and Joyce Ann Brown, living monuments to Texas injustice. "Hearing their stories, I realized, my God, there are innocent people on Death Row," she recalls. "I started thinking, this is about more than Chris and Richard. This is rampant. It is happening all over."

Following the luncheon, a news conference was held on the Capitol steps. And it was here, Scheck says, "that Jeanette suddenly emerged as this very powerful speaker."

Putting away her prepared notes, she recalled the day she grew frustrated with the judicial system after learning from a television program that the man responsible for the murder of her daughter had not been brought to justice, and another "crime was in progress--the wrongful imprisonment of Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger." After much discussion and prayer with her family, she felt compelled to do something to help them. "I had to stand up and say, 'This is wrong'...In loving memory of my daughter, it is my wish that the death penalty be abolished in the state of Texas so that it can no longer be used to coerce confessions from the innocent...And perhaps in doing this, my beautiful baby will not have died in vain."

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