On the basis of DNA evidence turned up by a group of law students, a judge today ordered the release of a man who had confessed to a murder 13 years ago.
Christopher Ochoa "has suffered a fundamental miscarriage of justice," said State District Judge Bob Perkins.
Ochoa, 34, was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Nancy DePriest at a Pizza Hut in Austin in 1988. He had since maintained that he confessed only because of coercion by Austin homicide detectives.
Ochoa embraced his weeping mother, Dora Ochoa of El Paso, Texas. "I just prayed to God that they would open the doors," she had said while waiting for the judge's order. She said she never doubted her son's innocence.
Prosecutor Agreed With Release of Ochoa
At Ochoa's request, students in the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a law school course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, had studied the case and found DNA evidence they said proved Ochoa didn't shoot DePriest. The two-semester course for second- and third-year law students investigates possible wrongful convictions.
Prosecutor Bryan Case supported today's action, saying Ochoa was wrongly convicted by a failed system.
"It's a bad feeling knowing it's failed," said Case, assistant district attorney for Travis County. "But it's a good feeling fixing it."
Other Inmate Confessed in 1996
Authorities say the new evidence points to Achim Joseph Marino, a prison inmate who confessed to DePriest's rape and murder in 1996 after a religious conversion and provided police with the gun and handcuffs he used to commit the crime. He is serving three life terms in Texas for other crimes.
No charges have been filed against Marino yet in the DePriest killing.
Jeanette Popp, mother of the 20-year-old victim, had agreed that Ochoa should be freed.
"I want very much to meet Christopher to tell him how very sorry I am about what happened," Popp, 51, of Azle, Texas, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week.
Ochoa, then 22, confessed to shooting DePriest and promised to testify against his then-roommate, Richard Danziger, who later was convicted of raping the woman.
Danziger is still in prison, where a severe beating left him unable to care for himself. His lawyers plan to ask for his release.
First Exoneration for Wisconsin Law School Project
Ochoa's case is the first exoneration won by the 3-year-old Wisconsin Innocence Project, said John Pray, who runs the project with fellow professor Keith Findley. It is modeled after the Innocence Project at Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City.
The project has about 25 pending cases and enrolls about 17 students each year.
Austin police and the Texas Rangers are investigating how the case went wrong. Their report, which will be reviewed by the U.S. attorney's office, is expected by the end of January.