Danziger and Ochoa: Why Did Freedom Take So Long?

The federal suits filed by exonerated convicts Richard Danziger and Christopher Ochoa on Nov. 6, which together seek nearly $200 million in damages, circle a basic set of questions: What did law enforcement officers know, and when did they know it? And why didn't they do anything with what they knew?

Danziger and Ochoa, who each served more than a decade in prison for a murder they did not commit, are each suing the city of Austin as well as several individual Austin police officers, claiming they ran a slipshod investigation into the 1988 murder of Nancy DePriest. The suits argue that APD detectives coerced Ochoa into falsely confessing to the crime and implicating Danziger, and further contend that APD later withheld exculpatory evidence that could have earlier exonerated the two men and brought the real killer to justice. Danziger is also suing the Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice; just a year into his life term, he was attacked by another inmate and now suffers from permanent brain damage.

The Danziger and Ochoa suits promise to, once again, bring to the surface questions about a dark chapter in APD history. In probing the training and oversight of the APD homicide squad, the suits also will likely ask whether the department has learned its lesson.

Ochoa and Danziger were each sentenced to life in prison for the rape and murder of 20-year-old DePriest at a North Austin Pizza Hut. Ochoa gave a highly detailed and yet completely false confession to then-APD detective Hector Polanco, which became the basis for both Ochoa and Danziger's life sentences. Ochoa pled guilty to the crime and testified against Danziger at his trial. According to court filings, Polanco and fellow detective Bruce Boardman and Sgt. Ed Balagia (now deceased) each threatened Ochoa with stories of prison rape and death by lethal injection in order to secure his confession. His attorneys argue he succumbed to the mounting pressure exerted by the detectives. "Although he was innocent, and told them so, Mr. [Ochoa] believed he would receive the death penalty if he did not comply with the defendants' demands that he falsely 'confess' to being involved in the crimes with Mr. Danziger," the court petition reads. Ochoa's attorney Bill Allison notes in his petition that Polanco, Boardman, and Balagia never recorded any of Ochoa's initial protestations of innocence.

After 12 years behind bars, Ochoa and Danziger were finally exonerated (through the use of DNA evidence) and released in 2001. However, in February 1996, convicted felon Achim Josef Marino had written letters to APD and to the Austin American-Statesman in which he claimed he alone killed DePriest and that Danziger and Ochoa were innocent. The lawsuits assert Marino's claims were immediately confirmed by law enforcement officials in El Paso, who found the Pizza Hut bank bag at Marino's parents' home along with the handcuffs he used to bind DePriest's hands.

Yet, no DNA testing was done to try to connect this evidence to the murder. Further, forensic testing on a .22-caliber shell casing found at the crime scene matched the bullet to a Ruger pistol taken from Marino in late 1988. However, the Danziger and Ochoa petitions note, although APD "took custody of the weapon after Marino's 1996 confession, they failed to compare its tool markings ... to confirm it as the murder weapon until 2000."

Getting no response the first time out, in February 1998 Marino wrote another letter, to then-Gov. George W. Bush, again confessing to the crime. "I wish to respectfully remind you, that in the event that you all decide to once again ignore this confession, that you all are legally and morally obligated to contact Danziger and Ochoa's attorneys and families," Marino wrote. Yet it would be three more years before Danziger and Ochoa would be set free. Marino was tried and convicted of the DePriest murder in fall 2002 and is serving a life sentence.

Danziger and Ochoa's federal cases will likely highlight old APD tales of woe. The department's too-few homicide officers weren't given much training or supervision, and they were faced with having to clear an increasing number of crimes. A 1992 task force investigation spearheaded by Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle and then-APD Chief Elizabeth Watson found that coercion and false confessions plagued the squad's work, and that the detectives' report writing was seriously deficient. The report noted that officers often left out information that was "not good for our side."

Ten years after that report, and 14 years after DePriest's murder, Danziger's attorney Jeff Edwards wonders if APD's mistakes and misdeeds were allowed to go on long after they were supposed to have been resolved -- while Danziger and Ochoa languished in prison for six years after Marino's initial confession. "That's a question we're going to ask the city, and we're going to demand answers," he says. "Because it just doesn't make sense."

The city's response to the lawsuit is expected by early December.

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