May 12, 2006 — -- Chris Ochoa never dreamed he would make it to college, never mind law school, but today, at age 39, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a law degree and was elected by his fellow students to be the commencement speaker.
He's a bit old for law school, but he was otherwise occupied for some time, spending 12 years in prison for a brutal crime he did not commit.
"They placed me in a cell by myself and the doors clanged," Ochoa said. "I was so, so alone in the world … sometimes I still have nightmares about that night."
That was his first night in prison, in 1988.
Ochoa was raised by hard-working parents in El Paso, Texas, and had never been in trouble before the incident that led to his incarceration.
After a 20-year-old Pizza Hut worker in Austin, Texas, was raped and killed, Ochoa was questioned and confessed under great pressure.
"I was scared. They are telling me I might die in a death chamber," Ochoa said. "They wear you down. I'm not the first person to sign a false confession."
He was sentenced to life, and then while in prison, he nearly took his own life.
"My lowest point came in 1996, Christmas Eve 1996. I just couldn't deal with the pain anymore," Ochoa said. "I broke a razor open and I put the razor right up against my wrist, my arm … I really wanted to die."
But he got rid of the razor blade, went back to the church and took advantage of the education programs for inmates.
Ochoa continued to study while in prison, eventually receiving two associate's degrees and then working on his bachelor's degree when he found freedom.
He was freed from prison, thanks to the directors of the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School. They spent years trying to prove Ochoa was innocent, even though another man had confessed to the crime, and told police where to find the murder weapon.
Ochoa was finally released in 2001, and instead of being bitter about the experience, he finished college and was accepted into the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he then worked for the Innocence Project.
"It was hard seeing these cases," Ochoa said. "Sometimes they get me angry. Sometimes DAs were being just jerks."
He says it was the attorneys at the Innocence Project who inspired him to pursue a career in the law. "I want to thank you from the very bottom of my heart for making me feel like I belong in society once again," Ochoa said in his commencement speech.
Now that he's a law school graduate, Ochoa is going to do a bit of traveling and then decide what kind of law he wants to practice. But he says he will probably steer clear of criminal law, because he gets too emotional about the subject.