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No More Polancos

The DA's office decides not to pursue the death penalty for Nancy DePriest's murder, but questions linger over police handling of the case.

By Jordan Smith, Fri., Dec. 21, 2001

On Wednesday morning, Travis County Assistant District Attorney Bryan Case told District Judge Bob Perkins that the state will not seek the death penalty for Achim Josef Marino, who has admitted he killed 20-year-old Nancy DePriest in 1988. The circumstances surrounding Marino's admission of guilt -- including his repeated attempts since 1996 to alert authorities he was DePriest's murderer -- precluded the state from asking a Travis County jury to execute him, Case said.

The news arrives not even one week after DePriest's mother, Jeanette Popp, visited Austin to meet Marino face-to-face. Popp, who lives near Fort Worth, sought answers to nagging questions about her daughter's death. Although the hour-long meeting was traumatic, Popp said she left with a feeling of closure and a much better sense of her daughter's final moments than the one she had received from Austin Police Dept. officers and county prosecutors.

On Oct. 24, 1988, DePriest was found naked and bound inside the North Austin Pizza Hut where she worked; she had been raped and shot. In the aftermath of the murder, Popp said APD Detective Hector Polanco told her "horrifying" details of the crime, including that her daughter had been beaten and repeatedly raped by the killers. "What he told me was so much more horrific," she said. "And it turns out he made this stuff up, right out of his thick little head."

A court found that Polanco had forced a false confession from Christopher Ochoa, who had named Richard Danziger, his friend at the time, as an accomplice. The confession became the basis for the trial that led to conviction of the two men. Meanwhile, in 1996 Marino -- already serving three consecutive life sentences for a string of aggravated robberies -- began writing letters to law enforcement officials and politicians including the APD, the Travis County District Attorney's office, and even Gov. George W. Bush, in which he confessed to DePriest's murder. The letters were mostly ignored until last year, when DNA testing proved that Marino was DePriest's sole assailant. Ochoa and Danziger were finally released this year after spending 12 years in jail. The DA's office "never notified me," Popp said. "I found out by seeing it on television on the 12th anniversary of my daughter's death."

As an ardent opponent of the death penalty, Popp had asked District Attorney Ronnie Earle not to seek a death sentence. However, she angrily informed the Chronicle that Earle had consistently refused to meet with her. Case acknowledged Popp's position, but said the state is not seeking death ultimately because Marino "came forward on his own and was persistent about it." Popp is satisfied with the DA office's decision, though she doubts their motives were all that pure. "I am glad they finally decided to give in on this and do the right thing," she said. "I am truly shocked."

Still, Polanco's misdeeds, combined with the fictionalized circumstances of DePriest's death -- details Popp said served only to re-traumatize her -- have led her to consider filing suit against Polanco individually (he retired from the APD in September) and perhaps against the city and county as well. "I told [the attorney] to sue everyone he could," she said. "But it's not about the money at this point. It's about the principle of the thing. If somebody doesn't pay [for the way the DePriest case was handled], then the people behind them, coming up, will think this is okay. There'll be a lot of little Polanco Juniors."

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