Lethal Rejection

Page 8 of 10

What gave Jeanette Popp's story its power was its incongruity, its humility, its heart. Unlike other victims who sought the finality of closure through the execution of their loved one's killer, she spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation, of not staining her daughter's memory by killing in her name. She wasn't some paid lobbyist with an agenda, some credentialed academic with statistics; she was simply a mother who found the issue thrust upon her after the child she loved was murdered.

With Ochoa, she made the talk-show circuit, appearing on Nightline, Sally Jessy Raphael, The View. The anomaly of them together, mother hand-in-hand with exonerated murderer, offered the kind of reversal of expectations that was the stuff of good drama. She spoke at universities, high schools, churches, rallies and marches, gaining confidence with each telling. But nowhere was she more effective than in the Texas Legislature, as she testified before a house committee in March 2001, supporting legislation that sought a two-year moratorium on all pending capital cases so questions about the application of the death penalty might be reviewed by an independent commission.

"It was the most emotional hearing I have ever been to in my life," recalls Houston state Representative Harold Dutton, who sponsored the legislation. "I remember being drained, exhausted for the rest of the day." Though the bill would never get out of the house committee, Popp made a name for herself with capital punishment foes, who seized the opportunity to put a compassionate face of a victim on their agenda. The Texas Moratorium Network enlisted her in its cause, and she would become the group's chairwoman. She also became an active member of the Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group that believes that victims who are anti-capital punishment are given second-class status and often discriminated against by pro-death penalty prosecutors.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office claims it is "highly victim-sensitive" and insists that in its eyes, "a victim is a victim." Popp tells a different story, claiming prosecutors mistreated her as she grew more vocal against Ronnie Earle's decision to seek the death penalty against Joe Marino. She says she was kept in the dark regarding his indictment, court settings and appearances--notification that was due her under the Victim's Bill of Rights. She had to rely on Larry Sauer, Marino's own defense attorney, to keep her informed of the status of the case.

Early on, she contacted Sauer, hoping to meet with Marino, thinking it might help if she could learn what really happened to Nancy. Lead prosecutor Bryan Case actually arranged the meeting, hopeful Popp could convince Marino to plead guilty. Case figured that Popp would want to avoid a trial that might compound her suffering and prove costly to the state. For a prosecutor to use the mother of a victim to sell a plea bargain to the victim's murderer might, in any other case, have seemed reprehensible. But not in this one.

It was one thing for Popp to preach against the death penalty in the abstract, but now she would be eye to eye with her daughter's murderer, the man solely responsible for her nightmares, her grief, the great tragedy of her life. She wondered if she could find within herself the compassion she now asked of others.

When they finally met on December 13, 2001, in the Travis County Jail, Popp felt as though she might have a panic attack. Steadied by Scott Cobb of the Texas Moratorium Network, who accompanied her, she sat at a long table opposite Marino and his lawyer. Marino acted polite, contrite, apologizing for killing Nancy and the pain he had caused her family. Popp needed to know if Nancy actually begged for her life, the same way she did in her nightmares. "What were Nancy's last words?" she asked.

"The only thing she said the whole time I was there was, 'Please don't hurt me,'" Marino said.

"Why did you pick Nancy?"

"I didn't pick Nancy. Actually, I was going to kill this other girl at this other restaurant, but when I got inside, there were other people there." Instead, he went to the Pizza Hut, posing as a soda-machine repairman. Although both doors were locked, "She just let me in."

"Did you know Todd DePriest?" she asked. "Chris Ochoa or Richard Danziger?"

He said he didn't.

After Nancy opened the door, Marino continued, he pulled his gun, grabbed the money, then raped her--but only once. He brought her to the ladies' room and said he was going to handcuff her to the sink to give himself time to get away. She thought she was going to be OK and turned her head. That's when he shot her. He dragged her into the hallway and flooded the bathroom after he couldn't find the spent shell casing. Then he left.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald