Backstory: From prison bars to bar exam
Christopher Ochoa is late as he walks into the Starbucks on University Avenue here and sits down. He takes off his Yankees hat and apologizes. "I'm sorry about that," he says mildly. I assure him it's no problem, but he seems genuinely distraught. It's the kind of thing he's still getting used to: making appointments and keeping them.Skip to next paragraph
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"You learn patience in prison," Mr. Ochoa says. "You learn to live one day at a time. You have to. And I have to get out of the habit, because I miss appointments like this one, because I take one day at a time."
Ochoa is short and quiet and blends easily among the students and soccer moms of this university town. He is shy by nature, a trait that may have helped him survive the 12 years he spent in the Texas prison system for a crime he didn't commit. He kept his head down.
Now, however, Ochoa is holding his head high. He is one of 180 people in the US to be exonerated by DNA evidence – and one of the few to thrive: Last month he became only the second exoneree in US history to graduate from law school. As he now heads out to look for a job in a field – criminal justice – that tragically let him down, Ochoa isn't sure what kind of law he might practice. But he does know some of the values he'll bring to the profession.
"You have to have compassion for your client," says Ochoa. "It doesn't matter how much money he has, or whether he's rich or poor, because that's what makes us better lawyers. And compassion is what makes, in essence, justice."
Justice is something that Ochoa, a Hispanic, has learned about the hard way. He'd never been in trouble, when Ochoa and a friend, Richard Danziger, went to a Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas, one day in 1988. The manager of the restaurant had been recently raped and murdered. While there, the two men offered a toast to the woman, they said, to memorialize her. Both worked at a nearby Pizza Hut.
When employees heard the toast, they got suspicious. Police arrested the two men a few days later. During a two-day interrogation, investigators threatened Ochoa with the death penalty if he didn't confess. At one point, one of the detectives threw a chair across the room. Ochoa says he finally gave them what they wanted: This was, after all, Texas – the No. 1 death-penalty state. He was sentenced to life in prison.
After more than a decade behind bars – and a few years after the man who actually committed the crime admitted to it – Ochoa wrote a letter to John Pray, codirector of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a group at a law school that investigates possible wrongful convictions. The students took up the case. New DNA tests were conducted. Ochoa and Mr. Danziger walked out of prison two years later in 2001 – 12 years after going in.
"I felt like it was a dream," says Ochoa's uncle, Ron Navejas. "We all had our arms around him when he was walking out."
Later that day, Ochoa boarded a plane with family members and Innocence Project workers to fly back to El Paso, Texas, where he grew up. One of the workers, Cory Tennison, noticed that many of the passengers were reading the story about Ochoa in newspapers. So he went to the intercom and made an announcement: Chris Ochoa is on the plane, flying home.
One passenger asked if he could take up a collection for Ochoa, who had no money in his pockets. "So this guy proceeds to walk around the plane with a barf bag," says Mr. Tennison, "and people were throwing in cash. We counted it later that night: It was over $500."