A U S T I N, Texas, Jan. 16, 2001 -- On the basis of DNA evidence turned up by agroup of law students, a judge today ordered the release of aman who had confessed to a murder 13 years ago.
Christopher Ochoa "has suffered a fundamental miscarriage ofjustice," said State District Judge Bob Perkins.
Ochoa, 34, was sentenced to life in prison for the killing ofNancy DePriest at a Pizza Hut in Austin in 1988. He had sincemaintained that he confessed only because of coercion by Austinhomicide detectives.
Ochoa embraced his weeping mother, Dora Ochoa of El Paso, Texas. "I just prayed to God that they would open the doors," she hadsaid while waiting for the judge's order. She said she neverdoubted 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, hadstudied the case and found DNA evidence they said proved Ochoadidn't shoot DePriest. The two-semester course for second- andthird-year law students investigates possible wrongful convictions.
Prosecutor Bryan Case supported today's action, saying Ochoawas wrongly convicted by a failed system.
"It's a bad feeling knowing it's failed," said Case, assistantdistrict attorney for Travis County. "But it's a good feelingfixing 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 1996after a religious conversion and provided police with the gun andhandcuffs he used to commit the crime. He is serving three lifeterms in Texas for other crimes.
No charges have been filed against Marino yet in the DePriestkilling.
Jeanette Popp, mother of the 20-year-old victim, had agreed thatOchoa should be freed.
"I want very much to meet Christopher to tell him how verysorry I am about what happened," Popp, 51, of Azle, Texas, toldthe Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week.
Ochoa, then 22, confessed to shooting DePriest and promised totestify against his then-roommate, Richard Danziger, who later wasconvicted of raping the woman.
Danziger is still in prison, where a severe beating left himunable to care for himself. His lawyers plan to ask for hisrelease.
First Exoneration for Wisconsin Law School Project
Ochoa's case is the first exoneration won by the 3-year-oldWisconsin Innocence Project, said John Pray, who runs the projectwith fellow professor Keith Findley. It is modeled after theInnocence Project at Yeshiva University's Benjamin Cardozo Schoolof Law in New York City.
The project has about 25 pending cases and enrolls about 17students each year.
Austin police and the Texas Rangers are investigating how thecase went wrong. Their report, which will be reviewed by the U.S.attorney's office, is expected by the end of January.