Vol. 77, No. 5, May
Chris Ochoa, IL
First-year U.W. Law School student Chris Ochoa brings a perspective
to his studies and life that few students and faculty share -- in 2001
he became the first prisoner exonerated by the Wisconsin Innocence
Project team. With almost a year of law school under his belt, Ochoa
works to reconcile the legal theory he's learning with his personal
experiences within the justice system.
by Dianne Molvig
Law student Chris Ochoa studies in the Quarles and Brady
Reading Room of the Law Library, beneath the 37-foot-long mural
Freeing of the Slaves , painted by John Stewart Curry from 1933
to 1942. Ochoa says the mural reminds him of the value of freedom.
Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart/UW-Madison University
Most anyone who visits a prison finds the experience eerie, whether it's
noticing the razor-wire coils atop the perimeter fencing, or hearing the
emphatic clank of metal doors slamming behind you as you step inside
this world apart.
Prison sights and sounds may be especially chilling to Chris Ochoa, a
first-year law student at the University of Wisconsin Law School. After
all, he walked into a Texas prison on Nov. 11, 1988, at age 22, and he
didn't walk out again until 12 years and two months later.
Ochoa found himself back in a prison environment one day this past
January, this time at Fox Lake Correctional Institution, Fox Lake, Wis.
He was there to serve as a Spanish interpreter between an inmate and
students and faculty from the Criminal Appeals Project, one of the law
school's clinical programs.
Now that it's been three years since Ochoa regained his freedom, a
prison visit is perhaps "good therapy," he says. "Maybe that's part of
my wanting to be a lawyer - to work out whatever demons I have."
The latter process is ongoing, begun on Jan. 16, 2001, the day Ochoa
won release from prison, thanks to the efforts of law students from the
Wisconsin Innocence Project and its codirectors John Pray and Keith
Findley, who fought and won a 16-month battle to prove Ochoa had been
wrongly convicted of rape and murder. (See "Freeing the
Innocent," Wisconsin Lawyer, April 2001.)
After his release, Ochoa returned to El Paso, Texas, his hometown,
where he'd grown up in a working class family, the oldest of three sons.
Both his younger brothers now work as truck drivers. A local
construction company offered Ochoa his first post-prison job, apparently
more for the sake of its own publicity than truly to help him, as the
company laid him off soon after hiring him. He then worked at a couple
of different jobs, piled up credit card debt, and struggled financially
"The hardest part," he recalls, "was trying to adjust, knowing that I
wasn't a 22-year-old anymore [he was then 34], but [wondering] how to
fit in with 30-year-olds? I didn't know where I fit in."
Ochoa enrolled in college to study business, which left him
uninspired, except for a business law class. That sparked the notion of
applying to law school. Further fueling that idea were his experiences
participating in a couple of wrongful conviction conferences at law
schools, and working with the attorneys representing him in his civil
suit against the city of Austin, Texas, for its police officers' actions
that led to Ochoa's wrongful conviction. "I was in on the initial
brainstorming [about the case]," he says. "The lawyers were asking me
for ideas. I felt real comfortable."
Another influence was, of course, his experience with the people at
the Wisconsin Innocence Project. Once Ochoa decided he wanted to study
law, he knew the U.W. Law School was his top choice.
The seeds of thinking about being a lawyer, however, go back even
further. In high school, Ochoa enjoyed his business law class and his
participation in a mock trial, in which, ironically, he acted as the
prosecuting attorney. Still, back then, "Coming from the background I
come from," he says, "I guess I never thought I had what it takes to go
to law school."
The Path to Prison
After finishing high school in El Paso, Ochoa moved to Austin to find
work and save money for college. He held various jobs, eventually
landing at a Pizza Hut, and then his life began to unravel.
Nancy DePriest, a manager at another area Pizza Hut, was raped and
murdered late one night at the restaurant. A couple of weeks later,
after Richard Danziger, Ochoa's 18-year-old roommate and coworker,
suggested they check out the crime scene, the two young men went to the
restaurant to ask a few questions. Call it youthful curiosity. But
Detective Hector Polanco viewed it as suspicious behavior; he brought
them into police headquarters for questioning.
What ensued was a living nightmare that even now, 16 years later,
Ochoa clearly dislikes discussing. Faced with Polanco's day-long
interrogation, Ochoa was barred from making any outside contact and saw
no lawyer. Polanco punctuated his questioning with loud, angry outbursts
and threats. He hammered repeatedly on the death penalty, pointing to
the very spot on Ochoa's arm where, after he'd been strapped down on a
gurney, the fatal injection would go.
After terrorizing Ochoa for hours on Friday, the police put him up in
a hotel for the weekend, supposedly "for his safety." Someone called
Ochoa's mother to inform her that her son would get the death penalty if
he didn't confess, which upset Ochoa even more than the threats Polanco
had hurled at him.
By Monday, police had Ochoa, who still hadn't seen a lawyer,
precisely where they wanted him. Polanco placed a confession in front of
him - in fact, the very same statement Polanco had tried to get two
other suspects to sign earlier, but the pair had solid alibis. "He just
whited out their names [and changed them]," Ochoa says. "That's how bad
it was." He signed the confession and also had to agree to testify
"If you're not versed in the law," he points out, "what can you do?
Even if you are versed in the law, once the machine turns on you, you're
not going to beat it."
The machine to convict him then rolled into motion. Ochoa's
court-appointed attorney did nothing to build a defense. No one did even
basic investigating that would have cast doubts on the confession -
doubts quickly unearthed by law students and lawyers from the Wisconsin
For instance, Ochoa's confession stated he entered the Pizza Hut
through a locked door by using a key. But the door in question could be
opened only from the inside. "That detail right there," Ochoa notes,
"should have blown the confession out of the water." What's more, gaps
appeared on the tape of Ochoa's confession at points where police had
stopped and rewound the tape, coached Ochoa to tell the facts straight
(that is, their version of the facts), and then resumed taping.
Ochoa says the story of his coerced confession stirs a common
response from people who hear it: What if this happened to my son or
daughter? "Now I know why we have wrongful convictions," he says. "It's
easy to say, yeah, but you have to catch the bad guys. Well, what if the
government [wrongly] takes away somebody's son or daughter? That
shouldn't be. We criticize China and other countries for that. And we're
doing the same thing."
With no defense, Ochoa was found guilty and sentenced to life, as was
Danziger. "In prison," he says, "you lose track of time. You don't even
want to see a calendar, especially if you have a life sentence."
He knows he was one of the lucky ones. In 1996, Achim Marino, who was
in prison for other rapes, some of which occurred after DePriest's,
confessed to DePriest's rape and murder. Still, prosecutors and police
held onto the belief that Ochoa also had been involved. Three years
later, police showed up at prison to ask Ochoa more questions about the
crime, without telling him about Marino's confession.
Ochoa knew something was going on. He found an address for the
Wisconsin Innocence Project and sent an eight-page letter asking that it
investigate. "My biggest worry," he says, "was that the guards or warden
would tear up my letters." Eventually, DNA evidence confirmed Marino was
the rapist, and Ochoa and Danziger again became free men.
Life as a Law Student
Given his experiences, Ochoa has a unique perspective on the rigors
he faces as a first-year law student. "It's difficult," he says, in his
typically quiet manner, "but I've adapted to worse situations than law
Still, he admits sometimes it's hard for him to witness what goes on
in law school. "I see people who are so naive, but it's not their
fault," he says, possibly thinking of his own naiveté at age 22,
when, until he faced police interrogation, he'd believed nothing bad
could happen to an innocent person.
The toughest part of his first semester was his introductory criminal
law class. "I struggled with the concepts of law, the theoretical," he
says. "It doesn't match with the reality of the law and the way it
works." One of Ochoa's attorneys for his civil suit pointed out why he
had reason to be upset.
"He told me you're studying the stage that sent you up the river,"
Ochoa says. "There was a confession, some pieces of circumstantial
evidence. That met the elements." And it was all it took for prosecutors
to win Ochoa's conviction.
He knows there will be opportunities in future courses to explore
cases from the defense viewpoint and learn about prosecutorial failings.
"The problem is you're shaping minds in that first year," he says. "We
should be showing them there are two sides to a case. That's a big
problem because unless law schools start changing, it will be a
Now in his second semester, Ochoa says he feels he has a better
handle on some of his frustrations, reminding himself, "I'm not here to
teach," he says. "I'm here to learn."
He's also thankful to have behind him a major distraction that
haunted him throughout his first semester: his long, drawn-out civil
action against Austin, Texas, for its police officers' actions that led
to Ochoa's wrongful conviction. The civil suit required him to make
several trips back there last semester, devouring time, but also
stirring old emotions as the case delved into where the fault lay for
the wrongful conviction.
"At one point," he recalls, "I said to my lawyers, 'What the hell is
going on? The DA is blaming me, the cops are saying it was my fault.
Everybody says it's my fault.'" The experience was, perhaps, like being
back in Polanco's interrogation room all over again.
Besides the numerous trips to Austin last semester, Ochoa also flew
back to El Paso for his godmother's funeral. Not everyone could
understand why it was so important to him to do that, in light of the
demands law school and his civil suit were putting on him. To Ochoa, it
was clear why he had to go. "I missed my grandfather's funeral [while
Ochoa was in prison]," he says. "I didn't feel I could do that again. I
just couldn't do it."
Ochoa had been extremely close to his grandfather all through his
youth. "He was my best friend," he says. And he remained so while Ochoa
was in prison. Every month, he sent his grandson $15, and he tried to
make the 10-hour trip from El Paso to the prison once a year or so. He
mailed Ochoa the El Paso newspaper, wrote a letter every week, and
instructed family members that his grandson was to receive part of his
modest inheritance, just like everyone else.
"He stuck by me," Ochoa says. "When you have a family member you're
so close to, come hell or high water, you're going to get to the
funeral." Only prison could, and did, stop him.
Shortly after getting out of prison, he stood at his grandfather's
gravesite. It was one of the few occasions when he allowed himself to
feel his rage against Polanco. "I looked at my grandfather's grave, and
I looked at my mom, who was in tears," he recalls, "and I said, 'Look at
what this cop left me. A grave.'"
The Missing Pieces
Finally, toward the end of last semester, the Austin city council
voted in favor of the settlement in the civil suit. While awaiting the
results on the day of the vote, Ochoa was tense and couldn't concentrate
on his studies. He told a fellow 1L that instead of going to contracts
class, he needed to go to lunch and have a beer. His classmate joined
"They say when you go to law school, you'll make one or two lifetime
friends," Ochoa says. "I think I've made that friend."
The $5.3 million settlement, set up to provide Ochoa monthly payments
for the rest of his life, assures his financial security. He's also
aware of what the settlement can't do for him. A 12-year hole in his
"The object of a civil suit," says Ochoa, now 37, "is to put the
person back in the place he would have been if that injury had not
happened. They can't ever do that. They can't bring the wife I might
have had, the kids." He worries that some things in life have passed him
by and never will happen.
As for the people responsible for his wrongful conviction, Polanco
never apologized to Ochoa and has retired from the police force. At the
hearing at which Ochoa was released from prison, the original prosecutor
on his case sat in the courtroom, glaring at him. Afterward, she warned
Ochoa that he'd better not try to blame the police officers.
And his original defense attorney? Missing in action, just as he was
back in 1988 when he was supposed to have defended Ochoa. That attorney
showed his lack of character again in 1999 when the Wisconsin Innocence
Project contacted him. He said, yes, he remembered Ochoa's case, and
they were wasting their time because Ochoa was guilty. Did they know
about the evidence of the gun, the murder weapon, with Ochoa's
fingerprints on it? The Innocence Project almost dropped the case at
that point. But fortunately, they checked into it, finding that no such
gun existed, and that the lawyer was lying to cover himself.
Meanwhile, Ochoa continues the process of putting his life back
together. He was pleased to be elected this semester as the community
vice president of the Latino Law Student Association. And this summer
he'll begin the year-long Innocence Project clinical course, as he
continues to explore what type of law he might practice some day.
Does he feel he's gotten back to being his old self? "There's a long
way to go," he responds. "Law school is helping me a lot - being on my
own, being more mature. I'm starting to see that society is not all that
bad. I'm getting back to what you'd call normal, I guess."
Learning to trust others again, however, may take a bit longer.
"That's the tough one," Ochoa says. "But eventually, I will."
Dianne Molvig operates
Access Information Service, a Madison research, writing, and editing
service. She is a frequent contributor to area publications.