Backstory: From prison bars to bar exam
(Page 2 of 2)
In El Paso, Ochoa went back to school to finish degrees he had started in prison, then began thinking about his future, even if the past wouldn't always let him go. He moved in with his uncle, who remembers how Ochoa wouldn't look him in the eye. "He was always looking down," says Mr. Navejas. "I asked him, 'why don't you look at me?' He said, 'I can't. That's what they taught us in prison. They make you look down at the ground.' And I said, 'Well you're not in prison any more. You can hold your head up high. You're free.' "Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Ochoa was out in the backyard with his uncle one day when he suddenly decided what he wanted to do: get a law degree. His interest had been piqued by a business-law class he had taken and talks he had given at law schools about his ordeal. For the second time, he put something in the mail to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School. This time, it was an application.
When Ochoa showed up for classes in 2003, his status as a star exoneree followed him. According to Ochoa's classmate Juan Marchan, some people were drawn to his inspirational story. Others whispered that he was the guy they say killed a woman in Texas.
Ochoa didn't know what to make of the odd looks. He wasn't even sure if they were odd looks. After 12 years in a prison atmosphere of mistrust and keep-to-yourself privacy, he didn't know the rules any more. "I didn't know how to talk to people," Ochoa recalls. "If someone didn't talk to me, I didn't know if that was normal. But as I progressed in law school, people got to know me for who I was. They treated me like one of their own. And that's all an exoneree wants."
Many innocent inmates who are freed don't do well on the outside. They struggle for years to put their lives back together. Some end up back in prison for crimes they actually do commit. One problem is that they often get less help than if they were guilty.
"The system is not really set up for that," says Mr. Pray. "If you're on parole, you have a parole officer, and you might be set up with certain services. But if you're exonerated, you're just off. You're on your own."
Ochoa did get some money. Halfway through his first year of law school, when he was struggling financially, he received a $5.3 million settlement from the city of Austin in a civil-rights lawsuit over police misconduct. Ochoa has done better than many exonerees, though, despite the money. Sipping his coffee, he offers one reason why. "The one thing you learn in law school," he says, "is that there's no room for emotion. None whatsoever. Not being angry, or happy. You can have compassion. But there's a fine line."
It would be understandable if Ochoa did harbor some anger, at the detectives who wrote part of his confession – at the people who took 12 years of his life. But he tries to let this go, to avoid letting it consume him. "I try not to think about it," he says. "I try to focus on moving forward and not being angry or bitter. I wouldn't be where I am today, if I had remained angry."
And he wouldn't be going where he's going either: first to Italy and Thailand for a much deserved break after 18 tumultuous years. Later this summer, Ochoa hopes to visit Yankee Stadium to watch his beloved team.
After that, he's not sure what path he'll take. Now 39, Ochoa says he might work in a prosecutor's office, to help prevent wrongful convictions at the outset. Or he may go into something less emotionally charged, like property law. But whatever it is, those around him, like his uncle, expect it to be big. "I know Chris," says Navejas. "He's not done yet."