Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Clear cut, rock solid and wrong.

Imagine this: a young woman is working at a Pizza Hut. She is attacked, raped and shot to death. Two young men are arrested. One of them confesses. Yes, he was there. Yes, he helped do this. Yes, his friend was guilty. And so the jury thought. And this is Texas which loves to use judicial killing as a punishment. This is the Bible Belt where fundamentalist Baptists dominate and executing people is firmly part of their moral code. What should Texas do?

Ask the President and he'll tell you. Execute them and fast. Ask the Governor and he'll say the same thing. Do a survey of Texans and a good percentage of them will argue that scum like this need to die and the sooner the better. They don't want delays, appeals, or anything else slowing down the vengeance that they seek.

The man who confessed was Christopher Ochoa and he testified that he and his friend, Richard Danziger, killed Nancy DePriest. Luckily for him and Danziger they got life sentences instead of the death penalty. Had they received the more severe, but very common, death sentence there is a good chance that they would have been executed by now. "So what?" say the advocates of judicial executions. "Scum like them deserve to die." Scum like them? Well, Ochoa confessed but he lied. He lied because he was terrified to deny the crime. Police had told him that unless he confessed he would get the death penalty and he would be executed.

Police grilled him constantly for two days with little sleep. He tried to resist but the police wouldn't let up. They were convinced he was their man so it was just a matter of breaking him. And they did. The described to him how he would be raped by other prisoners, they showed him photos of the dead woman, they showed him where on his arm the needle would be inserted to execute him. Orchoa said: "They kept saying, 'You are going to get the death penalty. This is a high-profile case. The community wants someone to die.'" Police said he couldn't call an attorney until charges were filed and eventually he confessed. And when he told the defense attorney what happened he wasn't believed

The presiding judge said that any jury would have found these men guilty. Ochoa's "confession" was iron clad as far he was concerned and "very compelling". Orchoa spoke of details of the murder known only to the muderer and to the police. But details the police had fed Orchoa. Danzinger had an alibi. He had spent the night with his girlfriend but her testimony was dismissed. Privately Orchoa insisted to his family he was innocent but said that unless he confessed they would seek his execution. It was the only way he saw to stay alive.

In essence this innocent man was told he had two choices. Confess to a murder he did not commit and spend his life in jail but alive or plead innocent, be found guilty anyway and be executed for his lack of cooperation. So Ochoa did what he felt was best given this unjust choice by the police. He and his friend were convicted and went to prison. These two men were still in prison until 2000 in spite of being innocent. But in 1996 another man, a convicted killer himself, admitted that he had been the one in the Pizza Hut that night.

With the help of pro bono attorneys the two innocent men were able to get DNA tests done which confirmed that the confession was not true. Orchoa admitted he lied under oath because of police intimidation. And finally the man who had actually done the crime was identified.

The guilty man, Achim Marino, wrote a letter of confession to then Governor George Bush. Bush was under some pressure since in his term in office 150 inmates had been executed by his government. That letter was sent to Bush in Febuary, 1998 but Bush did not turn it over to law enforcement after receiving it. The guilty man had sent the same letter to the police himself and to newspapers. He even told police where he hid items he took from the Pizza Hut like the keys, which were found at his parent's home.

After 12 years in prison the innocent men were released. They sued and were awarded damages. Orchoa, 22 when falsely convicted, received $5.3 million. Danzinger, 19 at the time, received $10 million in total. While in prison for a crime he did not commit he was beaten and suffers from permanent brain damage as result. Also traumatised by the events was the mother of the dead women, Jeanette Popp.

The police told Orchoa that the woman had been repeatedly raped and sodomized and he repeated to the jury what he had been told. The description was so real and graphic that Popp ran out of the courtroom and vomited. She had nightmares from what she thought had happened, something far worse and more gruesome that what actually happened. Police lied. They intimidated an innocent man and concocted facts for him to repeat in court. They told him that if he was white he might get off with life but he was Hispanic and "Hispanics always get the needle."

The police officer who led the investigation, Hector Polanco, had been identified as an officer who intimidates suspects and coerces confessions from them in other cases. And he was later fired when it was proven that he gave perjured testimony in a murder trial. But he was reinstated when he sued claiming the perjury was merely a memory lapse. He was paid $350,000 compensation for this! Danzinger's then girlfriend said that Polanco threatened her and told her he would try to implicate her in the killing as well. She had two children and he told her she would lose custody of them and that it would be proven she had given a gun to Danzinger. She says: "I had nightmares about this forever."

The Innocence Project was contacted by Orchoa and began to look into his case. They discovered that DNA samples still existed and that police had never bothered to test them. When he was released his mother was there to greet him. So was Jeanette Popp. At first she was angry that anyone would be trying to release the men she was sure had tortured her daughter. But when she looked at the evidence she realized something awful had been done to this men, and to her. She was at the prison to greet Orchoa and gave him a watch because, as she put it, time matters to him again.

Upon his release Orchoa went to the cemetary to his grandfather's grave. His grandfather had believed him innocent but died while Chris was in prison. Orchoa said: "I've got to go tell him I'm out." While in prison Orchoa, who was an honor student in high school, finished two degrees and upon release he went to law school. He said: "I made it through prison, why can't I make it through law school?" And in 2004 he started working for the Innocence Project himself.

Orchoe and Danziger were lucky. John Pray, of the Innocence Project, says: "For every one of these men for whom there is DNA to test, there are dozens of men and women who are denied access to DNA testing, for whom the evidence has been lost or destroyed, or for whom DNA is not available as evidence."

Jeanette Popp made one important point: "In loving memory of my daughter, it is my wish that the death penalty be abolished in Texas so that it can no longer be used as a threat to coerce confessions from the innocent." Orchoa agreed: "We need to stop the death penalty."

Anyone who doesn't believe that there are innocent people on death row right now awaiting execution isn't paying attention. Anyone who knows but doesn't care just isn't human.