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Falsely convicted man to collect

He stands to receive money from the state as well as Buena Park.

April 24, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

A state agency has recommended that a former Buena Park man be paid $31,700 for spending 10 months in prison for a carjacking he did not commit.

On Wednesday, James Ochoa, 22, also reached a tentative $550,000 settlement of lawsuits he had filed against Buena Park, its Police Department and a dog handler involved in the investigation.

Ochoa pleaded guilty on the third day of his trial in 2005 after Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert F. Fitzgerald threatened to sentence him to life in prison if convicted.

Ochoa insisted that he was innocent, but was unwilling to risk life behind bars. The prosecution offered him a deal, and he agreed to plead guilty and serve a two-year prison sentence.

The Orange County district attorney's office prosecuted Ochoa despite having DNA evidence and fingerprints linking someone else to the carjacking near a Buena Park nightclub on May 23, 2005.

Prosecutors also relied on a controversial law enforcement tool to identify Ochoa as a suspect, a machine that supposedly lifts human scent from items left at a crime scene.

A bloodhound that Buena Park police used supposedly followed the scent from a cap and shirt left by the carjacker two blocks to Ochoa's house, where he was sleeping. Ochoa's DNA was not found on the items.

After the dog led police to Ochoa, two victims identified him as their assailant. He was charged with carjacking, two counts of second-degree robbery and street terrorism for using a pellet gun.

On Tuesday, the state's Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board voted 3 to 0 to reject a hearing officer's finding that Ochoa did not deserve payment because he had contributed to his own conviction by pleading guilty.

Ochoa said the board's action surprised him.

He and attorney Scott Borthwick appeared before the panel in Sacramento on Tuesday to appeal the hearing officer's recommendation. Borthwick represented Ochoa at his trial and advised him not to plead guilty.

"I think they saw the situation I was in at the time, looking at life in prison, and they wanted to do the right thing," said Ochoa, who now lives in Texas with his wife and 5-year-old son. He works at a silk-screening company.

At the time he was arrested, Ochoa was on parole and had been out of prison two weeks after serving six months for possession of methamphetamine.

He was imprisoned for 10 months before Jaymes Thomas McCollum, who was serving a prison term for another carjacking, was linked to the DNA found at the scene.

McCollum, 22, confessed on Oct. 16, 2006, to the Buena Park carjacking. Ochoa was freed four days later.

The night Ochoa was arrested, police called in civilian Larry Harris and his dog. Harris, a Newport Beach engineer, is co-inventor of a scent-lifting device known as the STU-100.

Backers of the machine, which resembles a leaf blower, say it can collect human scent from an object as small as a bullet fragment and transfer it to a 5-by-9-inch gauze pad that is put to a bloodhound's nose. They claim the dog then follows the scent to the suspect.

"My free advice to Buena Park and other cities in the state is they better think twice before using this dog handler's technique," said attorney Arturo Gonzalez, who represented Ochoa in one of his lawsuits. "He's the reason why" Ochoa was arrested "when the real criminal was miles away."

The attorney representing the city declined to comment but confirmed the tentative settlement and that the city will pay Harris' portion. Harris also declined to comment because he did not know about the agreement.

Ochoa said he will use the money "to better my family's life and help my parents."

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hgreza@latimes.com

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