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.