Sunday, February 24, 2008

Would you confess to a crime you didn't commit to save your life?

Christopher Ochoa did in 1988 in Austin, and accused an innocent friend of being an accomplice after long bouts of questioning and threats of the death penalty. (The man who he accused of being an accomplice, Richard Danziger, was tragically beaten in prison to the point that he suffered brain damage and today is in his family's guardianship.)

The Dallas News today had an excellent feature interviewing Ochoa, now out of prison and a criminal defense attorney practicing in Wisconsin.

Doc Berman over at the Sentencing Law and Policy blogs says the death penalty is an "effective plea bargaining tool," but to me here's an example of what he means in practice. If you threaten to kill somebody, they may admit to anything, but I'm not sure that's so "effective" as it just makes wrongful confessions more likely.

13 comments:

Ron in Houston said...

Interesting story - thanks Grits.

rage said...

I feel for the guy, but no way in hell should he be an attorney. Not even a DA or defense attorney.

Doug B. said...

Since an innocent man seems much more likely to be discovered on death row than if he pleads guilty, it seems very unwise for a true innocent to be brow-beat into pleading guilty by the threat of the death penalty. And anf decent DP lawyer worth his salt should know this. Of course, I'd bet Ochoa did not have a good defense attorney, which is the real story of the case, not any flaw with having the death penalty as a possible punishment.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for the reaction, Doug. I must say, calling a false confession to a capital murder "unwise" surely is an early candidate for understatement of the year!

The problem came, I think, because he was interrogated without counsel, and made his confession after being threatened with execution by the interrogating officers. He was young, didn't have a legal background or any way to know that innocent people on death row are more likely to be exonerated. He made a rash, unwise, juvenile choice.

By the time the defense attorney came into the picture, sadly, the police had a "confession." The death penalty was an "effective tool" in obtaining that confession, I'll admit, but it resulted in a nearly unfathomable miscarriage of justice. I'm sure poor counsel played a part in the tragedy, but I think the use of the death penalty as "bargaining tool" contributed as well.

Anonymous said...

Rage......

Can you tell me why you think this guy should not be an attorney!

rage said...

Because it's bad enough that he confessed to a crime he didn't commit, showing a lack of fortitude, but he falsely accused someone else in the process. His skin is his own to give up, but a false accusation of someone else shows he shouldn't be put in charge of the lives of other people in any way.

TexPD4Parity said...

Not even a DA or defense attorney? What does that mean?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rage, I had the same thought when I first read the story, then considered that the guy was really young, that these experiences have taught him quite a lesson in that regard, and that he may well as an attorney spend the rest of his life endeavoring to make up for those unforgivable and "unwise" errors of judgment. I can see where that would be quite a motivator.

Wrongful confessions are more common than people think. That's partially because US police use the "Reid technique" of interrogation which confronts and accuses the person and demands a confession, instead of the information gathering technique more common in other industrialized nations that focuses on fact gathering and saves the accusations for later in the process.

Anonymous said...

Yes, false confessions are very common. I myself just confessed to something I didn't do to avoid facing a felony trial where the deck was stacked against me. The system is broken. Police and prosecutors often don't hesitate to lie and some judges are clearly biased. A long time ago I heard an attorney say something like "you don't go to a courtroom to find truth". I now really understand what he meant.

As far as the death penalty goes I don't oppose it on principle. There are some cases that clearly merit the death penalty. I do, however, oppose it until we fix our badly broken, often incompetent, sometimes corrupt criminal justice system.

Anonymous said...

With this article now think HOW MANY ARE SITTING IN JAIL ACCUSE OF RAPE/MURDER CHARGES NOW BECAUSE they can't afford the DNA to be tested. The courts say it's to expensive and so they will not test - I say test them all. This incident is not new, it happens all the time. I'm so sorry for both innocent men. My heart goes out to their families. No amount of money in the world can pay for the damage done to them.

Anonymous said...

The victim in this case was Nancy DePriest. Her mother, Jeanette Popp, pressured the DA in Travis County not to seek the death penalty against her daughter's real killer at his 2002 trial.

Jeanette Popp is listed as an endorser of Rick Reed for district attorney on his website.

The Dallas Morning News published an article on Popp on Feb 23, 2008:

Ms. Popp asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, because she says she did not want her daughter's memory stained with someone's blood. "I'm not a bleeding heart liberal," she says. "But I do have a heart."

Anonymous said...

This hits home to me because, in my whole hearted opinion this is what happened in my husband's case. He is currently incarcerated for 99 years for a relative of mine pleaded to a charge of life in prison to say that my husband did the crime (capital murder). My husband was 15 at the time and my cousin 17. They could try and get the death penalty for my cousin but not my husband because of his age at the time. So again in my opinion they persuaded my cousin to do this. I believe that neither one was involved in it but it was an election year and they wanted to get someone for it. This case however can not be cleared with DNA. My 2 cents anyway.

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