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Freed Man Gives Lesson on False Confessions

An ex-inmate tells a state panel how Texas police coerced him into admitting to murder.

June 21, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

But she talked with Findley and looked at documents.

"I knew we had done a horrible thing. I say 'we' even though I was not involved in sending them to prison. I somehow felt responsible," Popp said in a lengthy interview. She sent Ochoa and Danziger letters saying "how sorry I was," and soon gave an interview to a local newspaper saying they should be freed.

She went to court the day Ochoa was released and sat with his mother as the judge who had sentenced him said there had been a "clear miscarriage of justice."

Months later, she went to see Marino, the real killer, who was awaiting trial at a jail in Austin. From Marino, she learned, contrary to trial testimony, that her daughter had not begged for mercy. Marino said DePriest's only words were, "Please don't hurt me." She also learned that her daughter had been raped once, not numerous times, as Ochoa had confessed after being fed a story by police investigators.

Popp said she remained disturbed that no action was taken against lead police investigator Hector Polanco, who retired shortly after it became clear that Ochoa and Danziger were innocent. Polanco said DePriest "was repeatedly sodomized, raped eight times, begged for her life. He made these things up. I had nightmares for 12 years," Popp said.

Marino was convicted later and received another life sentence. After the jailhouse meeting, Popp successfully urged prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. Since then, she frequently has spoken out against capital punishment.

Ochoa, who was chosen by his law school classmates to be one of the speakers at their graduation, said most people had no grasp of why a person would make a false confession.

Ochoa, who was questioned for more than 20 hours over two days, said in an interview Tuesday that he told officers repeatedly that he did not know anything about DePriest's murder but that eventually his will was broken. He said he was afraid that he would be executed, as police detectives had threatened, if he did not confess.

During his interrogation, Ochoa said, Polanco "told me I would be 'fresh meat' for the other inmates, which I took to mean rape." He said Polanco also showed him pictures of death row, and DePriest's autopsy photos. At one point, Ochoa said, the detective rapped him on the arm and said "that's where the needle will go," referring to lethal injection in the Texas death chamber.

"They kept saying, 'You are going to get the death penalty. This is a high-profile case. The community wants someone to die,' " Ochoa recalled. He knew he had done nothing, but he started to worry.

"I was taught to trust the cops," Ochoa said. He said that when he asked to call a lawyer, one of the officers told him he could not do that until he had been charged. After Ochoa was charged and told his defense lawyer how he had been intimidated, the attorney didn't believe him.

"I always have been amazed at someone saying what a 'reasonable person' would do in that situation," Ochoa said. "That kind of rational thinking cost me 13 years of my life."

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