Backstory: From prison bars to bar exam

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

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."

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.' "

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."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...