Sunday, June 25, 2006

Coerced False Confession

In a Texas courtroom 17 years ago, Christopher Ochoa described in blood-curling detail with intimate accuracy how he and a roommate repeatedly raped a 20-year-old woman; except none of it was true.

In October 1998, Nancy DePriest had been working at a North Austin Pizza Hut when she was bound, raped and then shot in the head with a .22-caliber revolver.

Ochoa and his roommate came under suspicion while drinking beer at the same Pizza Hut two weeks after the murder; and after nonstop interrogation by the lead Austin investigator, Hector Polanco, Ochoa confessed to the crime.

Now why would an innocent man confess to a grisly murder he was not involved in?

In the case of Ochoa, booming fear of Texas justice.

According to an article by Texas Monthly, Austin police detectives told Ochoa that if he didn't confess he would wind up on death row.

Ochoa, a former high school honors student who had no criminal record, said he confessed because over the course of two long interrogations, Polanco and the other detectives hollered at him, threatened him with rape by other inmates, and told him he would get "the needle" if he didn't confess to DePriest's murder.

When Ochoa was sufficiently terrified, the detective began asking him leading questions, feeding him details. "He was all the time telling me what to say," said Ochoa. For example, he said, "Polanco would say, 'Did he [Danziger] say how good-looking she was?' or something. And I would say, 'Yeah.'" All the while Boardman typed his answers, which eventually sent two innocent men to the pen, and one to oblivion.

Through dogged determination by a group of second and third year law students at the University of Wisconsin Law School, officials tested DNA from the crime scene; and the DNA evidence exonerated both Ochoa and Danziger.

For the city's gross act of injustice, Ochoa was awarded $5.3 million.

Just a few weeks ago, Ochoa graduated from the same law program that had earlier saved him from a life of confinement behind bars.

Richard Danziger, Ochoa's former roommate, has had a more difficult time of it.

The hapless friend whom Ochoa wrongfully fingered as the trigger man now lives with his sister in Jacksonville, Fla., and he suffers seizures and loss of peripheral vision.

In 1991, Danziger was brutally beaten by an inmate and suffered permanent brain damage.

For his pain and anguish, the city of Austin agreed to pay him $9 million. Travis County also reached a settlement with him for $950,000.

Last year, Danziger sued the state of Texas on behalf of Ochoa for $500,000; this is part of a settlement reached when Danziger sued Ochoa for falsely testifying against him.

In Texas alone, 20 prisoners as of January 2006 have been exonerated through DNA for murder and/or rape.

In Virginia, a jury recently awarded $2.25 million to Earl Washington Jr., a mentally handicapped former farm hand who was browbeaten until he confessed to killing Rebecca Lynn Williams, a 19-year old mother of three who has been stabbed 33 times.

Washington sat on death row for nine terrifying years and came within days of being executed by the commonwealth.

As the Los Angeles Times recently wrote, 180 prisoners have been "exonerated by DNA testing in the last two decades." Forty-four "falsely confessed."

False confessions "do happen, a lot more often than people think," Ochoa said.
Who can appreciate the import of these words better than Ochoa?

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