On Christmas Eve 1996, Christopher Ochoa went back to his Texas prison cell and pressed a razor blade to his forearm. He was serving a life sentence for a murder he did not commit and was ready to end it all.
But Ochoa didn’t follow through. And on Friday, he will have a new life awaiting him when he graduates from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School the same institution that rescued him from his worst nightmare.
Ochoa, now 39, was the first person exonerated by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a UW law school course that investigates possible wrongful convictions.
“He was this sort of caged animal and the contrast now with him getting a law degree, the contrast is just amazing,” said John Pray, the project’s co-director.
Ochoa and another man, Richard Danzinger, were convicted in the 1988 rape and murder of Nancy DePriest, a 20-year-old Pizza Hut worker in Austin, Texas. He was 22 when he was found guilty through a confession he says detectives forced him to make up. He spent 12 years behind bars before DNA tests proved someone else killed her.
Ochoa, who grew up in El Paso, hopes to one day become a prosecutor so he can control investigations. He calls American justice the best system in the world, but says corrupt investigators and prosecutors have broken it.
Ochoa said he still has nightmares about detectives, stemming from the stop-and-start, two-day interrogation that led to his confession. He said detectives threatened him with the death penalty. At one point a detective threw a chair across the room, narrowly missing his head, he said. When he finally gave up and gave them what they wanted, they had to fill in details in his statement themselves, he said.
The first night in his cell was “the loneliest feeling in the world,” he said. “I asked myself what had I done? Why?”
Then came the night in 1996. Ochoa had not yet received any Christmas cards and had reached the mark of around eight years when most lifers snap, he says matter-of-factly. It drove him to the brink of killing himself.
The only thing that stopped him was the teachings of his mother and the nuns in his catechism classes. He had no right to take a life, even his own, he said, and lifted the razor from his arm.
Then, Ochoa started hearing rumors that someone else had confessed to DePriest’s slaying. He had heard about the Wisconsin Innocence Project and wrote a letter begging for help.
“I’d given up on everybody,” Ochoa said. “I said, ‘Please, I don’t have anywhere to turn to. Please help me.’”
The project took the case because of the other confession and the potential of DNA evidence, project co-director Keith Findley said. Students tracked down biological evidence and DNA tests eventually ruled Ochoa out and pointed to a man already serving a life sentence for other violent crimes.
Ochoa was freed in January 2001. Danzinger also was released.
Ochoa had earned two associate degrees through correspondence courses and had almost completed his bachelor’s degree when he was released. A University of Texas-El Paso business law class and talks he gave at different law schools about his experience inspired him to become part of the system that had put him away, he said.
“The funny thing is I could not stand lawyers and cops,” he said.
Last summer, Ochoa served as an assistant prosecutor in the Green County district attorney’s office. He said he would love to have that job so he can tell the police to do a better job before charging someone.
“You don’t want to push an innocent man into prison to further your political career,” he said.
— Associated Press
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