Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Framing of Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger

This is the fourth post in the series Framing the Guilty, Framing the Innocent. For ease of navigation among the posts, use the Table of Contents.

In the early morning hours of 24 October 1988, Nancy DePriest was working alone in a Pizza Hut restaurant in Austin, Texas. The 20-year-old mother of a 15-month-old baby girl was rolling dough when Achim Josef Marino used a restaurant key to let himself in the side door. Marino bound DePriest with a pair of handcuffs and her own bra, raped her, and shot her in the head.

After a religious awakening in 1996, Marino began trying to confess to the crime. He contacted the Austin police, a local newspaper, the ACLU, and Governor George Bush, but none of them would take him seriously. He provided information to the Austin PD that led directly to the recovery of the restaurant keys, the handcuffs, and the .22 calibre Ruger pistol he used in the attack, as well as two money bags he took from the restaurant.

Rather than charge Marino for the murder, the police (and pretty much everyone else) simply ignored him and his evidence. The police conducted no DNA testing to connect the evidence to the crime. They did no ballistics comparison to match shell casing found at the scene with Marino's pistol.

The State and People of Texas were uninterested in Marino because they had already framed Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger for the rape and murder of Nancy DePriest. So tight was the frame that the presiding judge at Danziger's trial recalled that "any jury hearing that testimony would have found those two guys guilty." So tight was the frame that the jury took only seven and a half minutes to deliberate Danziger's fate.

The only evidence against Danziger was the testimony of Danziger's friend, roommate, co-worker, and alleged accomplice Christopher Ochoa. The presiding judge recalled that Ochoa's testimony was "very compelling" because it "contained details police said only a witness to the crime could have known."

Christopher Ochoa pled guilty and a jury found Richard Danziger guilty. Both young men were sentenced to life imprisonment.

While under the care and custody of the State and People of Texas, Richard Danziger was attacked by fellow inmate Armando Gutierrez. Gutierrez threw Danziger to the floor and kicked him in the head repeatedly with a steel-toed boot. One or more of the kicks drove a segment of Danziger's skull into his brain. Danziger was taken to a nearby hospital where, during emergency surgery, a piece of his brain was removed from his shattered skull. Because of his injuries, Danziger suffered partial paralysis, seizures, anxiety, and mental problems. Frequently unable to carry on a simple conversation or recognize family members, Danziger was eventually transferred to the Skyview psychiatric prison.

Pleasant name, Skyview.

In 2000, under pressure from a Wisconsin innocence project, the State and People of Texas finally got around to testing Marino's pistol and the male DNA from Nancy DePriest's body. The shell casing from the crime scene matched Marino's pistol. The male DNA from DePriest's body matched Marino. The testing excluded both Ochoa and Danziger as contributors of the DNA.

Marino was absolutely, unequivocally guilty, despite the State's reluctance to believe so. Ochoa and Danzinger were absolutely, unequivocally innocent, despite the manufactured case of guilt that framed them so well.

There is no doubt that Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger were framed by the State and People of Texas. It makes no difference if the police and the prosecutors believed Ochoa and Danziger were guilty. The case against them was manufactured out of whole cloth. Such a manufactured case is, purely and simply, a frame.

Christopher Ochoa and Richard Danziger became suspects in the case for the flimsiest of reasons. The two had also been Pizza Hut employees, though they worked at a different restaurant than Nancy DePriest. After the murder, they visited the restaurant where the crime had occurred, ate some pizza, drank some beer, and raised a toast to the murdered Nancy DePriest. An employee found this behavior suspicious and reported it to the police.

The police hauled the two in for questioning and decided Danziger knew too much about the crime. Investigator Hector Polanco homed in on Ochoa as the weak link. Polanco led a lengthy interrogation of the small, timid Ochoa.

Ochoa requested a lawyer. Polanco refused on the pretense that Ochoa had not been officially charged with a crime.

Ochoa pleaded his innocence. Polanco told him 'You're going to get the needle for this. We got you." Polanco threatened him with prison rape, telling him that he would be "fresh meat" for the other inmates.

Ochoa pleaded his innocence. Polanco threw chairs around the room and threatened to "crush his head" if he didn't confess.

Ochoa pleaded his innocence. Polanco showed him pictures of death row and pointed to the spot in Ochoa's arm where the lethal chemicals would be injected.

Polanco did not limit his threats to Ochoa. Donna Angstadt was the manager of the Pizza Hut where Ochoa and Danziger worked. Danziger was her former boyfriend. Polanco questioned her as well. She described the event as "the most horrific, the most horrible experience I've ever been through in my life." Polanco tried to link her to the crime. He told her that she supplied the gun. He told her that she pulled the trigger as Danziger held DePriest's head. He threatened to have her children removed from her custody.

The DePriest case was, of course, not the only one in which Polanco would be accused of coercing confessions and lying about them. In 1992, the Austin PD fired him for perjuring himself during a different murder trial. Polanco was reinstated by an arbitrator who attributed Polanco's false testimony to a memory lapse.

Polanco, unfortunately, was not the only Austin police officer to engage in such abusive and corrupting behavior. In 1992, and investigative task force found that an excessive workload, inadequate training, and inadequate supervision resulted in false confessions. The task force observed also that the Austin PD detectives tended to leave out information that was "not good for our side."

After a lengthy interrogation, Christopher Ochoa did what 20% of all exonerees did: he confessed to a crime he did not commit. Only then was Ochoa provided an attorney. So tight was the frame that even the attorney thought Ochoa was guilty: "There's a detailed confession, you gotta be guilty."

In exchange for taking the death penalty off the table, Ochoa agreed to plead guilty for his role in the robbery and rape. He agreed also to testify against Danziger as the person who shot Nancy DePriest in the back of her head.

While awaiting his sentencing and Danziger's trial, Ochoa maintained his innocence, but only when speaking with his attorney and his family. His attorney explained that if he were to publicly proclaim his innocence, the State might try to execute him. "They made me confess," he told his uncle, "and how am I going to prove my innocence now? It's my word against theirs."

At Danziger's trial, Ochoa provided details of the crime that he could have obtained only from the police. He and Danziger met at a McDonald's near the Pizza Hut at 7 AM. They entered the side door of the Pizza Hut using a master key that Danziger had managed to obtain. DePriest was cutting pizza dough when they arrived. They had a conversation with her. They bound her. They gagged her. They raped and sodomized her eight different times, twice after she had been shot in the head.

Ochoa departed from his confession when describing who shot DePriest. In his confession, he claimed Danziger was the shooter. At trial, he testified that he shot DePriest because she recognized him.

Danziger always maintained his innocence. He could offer no explanation why Ochoa would accuse him. He claimed that he had been with his girlfriend when the murders occurred. The jury deliberated for seven and a half minutes before convicting him.

Danziger and Ochoa were each sentenced to life imprisonment. They served 12 years behind bars before being released. Had it not been for religious conversion of Achim Josef Marino, and his persistent efforts to prove his guilt, Richard Danziger and Christopher Ochoa would be in prison today, framed by the State and People of Texas.

18 comments:

Karen Shaw Regal said...

Awesome read. Unbelievable story.

Anonymous said...

Was Richard Danziger's family able to sue the pig Hector Polanco or the state for damages?

Philip said...

Are you nuts. Danzinger is not free and will never be free and he was framed not by the state, but by Ochoa! Ochoa should be in prison for life for framing Danzinger where his brains were kicked in thanks to Cohoa's false tstimony!

L Barrett said...

They were both kids, scared, threateneńŹ and bullied by the then Gestapo of a police dept.
That the maniac that did the crimes told and was ignored for so long, disgusting. DNA and other forensics will continue to help old cases and prevent more false imprisonment. Our worse threat now is with illegals/the undocumented here in the US.

Sundance Rydr said...

I still don't understand why he implicated Danzinger. His Confession was bad enough~ false or no~ but to say someone else helped to do an imaginary thing is AWFUL! It's on as I write~ and Ochoa is speaking as though he was victimized. That's bull from way back! How in heck do you defend yourself when your best friend says otherwise~ when the truth is thrown out? I agree with @Philip~ Ochoa should have been given jail time for lying on Danzinger. All the stories place Ochoa in the forefront~ and it's Danzinger who should get the spotlight...

Sundance Rydr said...

I still don't understand why he implicated Danzinger. His Confession was bad enough~ false or no~ but to say someone else helped to do an imaginary thing is AWFUL! It's on as I write~ and Ochoa is speaking as though he was victimized. That's bull from way back! How in heck do you defend yourself when your best friend says otherwise~ when the truth is thrown out? I agree with @Philip~ Ochoa should have been given jail time for lying on Danzinger. All the stories place Ochoa in the forefront~ and it's Danzinger who should get the spotlight...

Anonymous said...

watch - Right Place, Wrong Time: The Murder of Nancy DePriest - YouTube

tsj said...

Anon,

Thanks for the YouTube tip. I had not seen that video before I posted this article.

I want to reinforce my central thesis. There is no doubt that Ochoa and Danzinger were innocent. If Ochoa was not there, how did he know the details of the crime? Only one answer. The cops gave him the details, then used his knowledge of the details as evidence he committed the crime. That's the frame.

Carla Snook said...

Imagine you have been locked in a small, stuffy uncomfortable room for OVER 24 hours with frustrated, tired, over worked and under trained Detectives. They are -allowed- to LIE, trick, repeat questions at rapid fire speeds to the allegedly "Guilty" person(s). Then, a glimmer of the end of the tunnel appears to you in the words, "Take a lie detector test, then you can leave....." NO matter, at the very TOP portion of your questioning; before you painted yourself in a corner with coerced information spoon-fed to you unconciously by the Detectives; you ASKED for a Lawyer, and your statement was brushed away with yet, another LIE by the Detectives. THAT Y'all is how someone points the Finger of "GUILT" at their own Friends, Co-Workers, and Loved Ones. Next time you see this portrayed in a re-enactment; put yourself IN there - facing agressive interrogation techniques.

wolfy said...

For those who can't understand why Ochoa implicated Danzinger, it's because both of them were suspects because they'd been to the Pizza Hut restaurant where Nancy worked after her death & toasted to her, I'm sure respectfully, but an employee thought that action was suspicious & informed the police. While Polance was interrogating Ochoa, he convinced Ochoa to say Danzinger had also been at the scene of the crime, participated in the rape & watched Ochoa shoot DePriest. Later, Ochoa stated Danzinger himself had shot DePriest. Danzinger, by the way, had never wavered from stating he was innocent of this crime. Both men were railroaded by Austin police, particularly Polance. Danzinger's family should sue the Austin Police Department, the prison their son was accosted & beaten in & Polance himself. Ochoa's family should sue the Austin Police & Polance, personally. Both men are innocent of this crime & should be compensated for their pains. DePriest's family should be compensated for having to go through the hell of knowing 2 innocent men were sent to prison (one damaged, physically for life) & subjected to having a third man, who confessed to numerous high-ranking officials that he'd not only done the crime but had the weapon & evidence to prove it, free for years & they did nothing to change it.

Leese Vee said...
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Leese Vee said...
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Leese Vee said...

I don't feel sorry for Ochoa one bit...

Why did he and his roommate interject themselves into this case in the first place? And why did they both 'toast' to this poor victim at her workplace after she was brutally murdered? It was tasteless and classless!!

So that being said no wonder they became suspects. It was their fault for getting involved with the case in the first place. Especially Ochoa because he was too wussy to stand up to the cop's tactics and found himself going to trial for a case he 'admitted' to!!!! He gets in over his head by being obsessed by the case, admits to the crime, and involves Danziger as well. Ochoa was 22 years old at the time and old enough to know right from wrong and old enough to stick up for himself and say NO I DID NOT DO IT until blue in the face! Come on this is your life you are talking about, jeez. And obviously the DNA did not match so that alone should have showed he was lying.

Unbelievable! He should not have been awarded any money nor should he be praised as the victim. He should have been protected for perjury & for making false statements. Nancy DePreist was the victim let's not forget & her poor mother, husband, and baby girl. They should be compensated for their pain & suffering going through 2 trials and having to endure all of that twice. Ochoa should donate his money to them....and he gave $500,000 to Danziger for his pain & suffering?! It was all his fault what Danziger endured in prison resulting in injuries lasting the rest of his life. That compensation he gave to Danziger was not even enough. Ochoa makes me sick not to mention his 'cameo' in the program about this case still acting like he was a victim.....Yuck!

Unknown said...

People that blame Ochoa and say they don't feel bad for him are the same people that claim they would never confess to something they didn't do. The truth is, unless you are in their shoes, you don't know. Reading this story and then reading about the Yogurt Shop killings, very similar. Too many examples of APD developing a theory and then making the case fit their theory. Lazy and bad police work with dire consequences.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
kimmy cuthbert said...

Ochoa didnt frame him, marino did

kimmy cuthbert said...

The cops threatened him, plead guilty or you will get the death penalty. Same with marty tankloff, he was framed for murdering his parents

Anonymous said...

This is sickening! I agree Ochoa should be charged with perjury! And if I was Danzinger's family I would sue him for the money he received! Ok so he was tormented by police and says he could not stand up for himself, OK that's one thing, but to drag your friend into it as well?? There is no excuse!! Just goes to show the old saying "Be careful of the company you keep" and the people you call your "friends".FYI-Ochoa was 22 at the time, and Danzinger only 19. If the "Oh he was so young" excuse should be given to anyone, it should be Danzinger. But that isn't necessary because, Danzinger had the spine to maintain his innocence from start to finish!

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