Nightline: Convict's Letter Reopens Murder Case

When two men were convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 20-year-old Nancy DePriest, her mother Jeanette Popp took comfort that justice had been done.

But another man, Josef Marino says he is responsible for the attack on DePriest. "I'm the sole perpetrator. I'm the one who robbed her. I'm the one that raped her. I'm the one who murdered her," he says.

Nancy DePriest, a young wife and mother, had been opening the Pizza Hut where she worked when she was attacked. In his confession, Marino described how he shot DePriest in the back of the head. But police had never suspected Marino. Under intense pressure to solve the crime, Austin, Texas police instead focused on Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger after a tip that the two had been hanging around the restaurant asking questions about DePriest's death and toasting her memory.

Sgt. Hector Polanco, an investigator with reputation for being able to solve even the toughest cases, was on the case. And true to form, Polanco quickly closed the case. How did he solve a murder with no witnesses and no murder weapon? He obtained a signed confession from Ochoa. And Ochoa implicated his friend Danziger and testified against him in court.

Danziger insisted he was innocent. Nevertheless, the jury convicted and sentenced him to life in prison. Ochoa pleaded guilty and also received a life sentence.

Eight years later, startling new evidence would change everything.

Finding God and a Confession

In 1996, Josef Marino, in prison for robbery and sexual assault, found religion and sent a startling confession letter to police. "I am 100 percent responsible for the death, the robbery, rape and murder of Miss DePriest," Marino wrote. "I told [the police] the details of the case. I told them that I acted alone. I told them I had physical evidence ready to be picked up," said Marino. Indeed, officers found a moneybag at Marino's house, handcuffs that were used on DePriest and even the gun Marino said was the murder weapon.

Two years would pass while police attempted to find a link between Marino and the two convicts and before they would notify the District Attorney's office of the confession letter. During which time, Marino kept on confessing to anyone who would listen, insisting all the while he acted alone. He even confessed to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, writing "You are legally and morally obligated to contact Danziger and Ochoa's attorneys." But Marino never got any response.

In August 2000, during the midst of the presidential campaign, Marino's confession finally got some attention. But there was reason enough to believe Ochoa and Danziger were guilty. In 1998, Ochoa maintained his guilt when police officers visited him in prison. Ochoa now says he was afraid the officers were trying to implicate him in yet another crime. To stay out of trouble, Ochoa says he told them what he thought they wanted to hear.

Although it defies reason that an innocent man would confess to a murder he didn't commit and maintain his guilt for over a decade, Ochoa did just that. But in 1999 he wrote the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and they in turn wrote Texas authorities. When Ronnie Earle, Austin's District Attorney, heard about the new confession he decided to take a second look at the case. And investigators were startled by what they discovered. New ballistic tests on Marino's gun showed it to be the murder weapon. DNA found at the crime scene matched Marino; it did not match Ochoa or Danziger. Earle knew the two men convicted of DePriest's rape and murder were not guilty.

An Intimidating Officer

If Ochoa and Danziger were innocent, how did they come to look so very guilty? The answer may go back to the officer at the heart of the investigation — Polanco. Behind the doors of the interrogation room, Ochoa says he learned firsthand just how Polanco managed to solve so many cases. "He said, 'We are going to charge you with this crime. Whether you had anything to do with it or not, because this is a real big case and they want somebody.'"

And when Ochoa wouldn't confess, Ochoa said Polanco described how he could get raped in prison. After two days of interrogation, Ochoa confessed to everything, admitting he and Danizger murdered DePriest. He now says he made up the statement because Polanco threatened him with the death penalty.

Berkley Bettis, Danziger's attorney, believes Ochoa was "merely a puppet" with detectives feeding him lines to make his confession appear credible.

This wasn't the first time Polanco's tactics were questioned. In 1992, authorities became suspicious of his tactics in several unrelated cases. He was accused of coercing a false murder confession and even lying on the witness stand. For that Polanco was fired. But an arbitrator exonerated Polanco. He was reinstated and remains on the police force today. The U.S. Attorney's Office is currently investigating Polanco. Through his attorney he refused repeated requests to speak with Nightline.

A Guilty Friend

But even if he is innocent, Ochoa is guilty of at least one thing: implicating another innocent man; Danziger. His friend always maintained his innocence, but was brutally beaten in prison by another inmate in a case of mistaken identity. He is severely brain damaged as a result. "He will die in an institutional green room some day years from now, whether he is a prisoner of the state of Texas or whether he is simply warehoused in a mental institution solely as a result of Chris Ochoa's lying testimony," said Bettis.

Ochoa is expected to be released from prison Tuesday after more than a decade. And the district attorney's office is considering whether Marino will face the death penalty.

Ochoa admits he was guilty of not having the courage to say, "No, I didn't do this." "But really they're not my lies. They're Sergeant Polanco's lies."

DePriest's mother said that she took to heart those lies for a decade. "He was fed those details by the interrogating officers. My daughter was never sodomized. She wasn't raped eight times repeatedly. She didn't beg for her life because she didn't know she was going to die. And for me and my family to have gone through all these years of believing those things, it is unbearable."