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    Chris Ochoa, 1L

    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.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 77, No. 5, May 2004

    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

    Chris Ochoa 

    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 communications

    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 and emotionally.

    "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 against Danziger.

    "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 Innocence Project.

    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 school."

    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 never-ending cycle."

    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 him.

    "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 life remains.

    "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.