Innocent people plead guilty for a variety of reasons that we will be discussing during the coming weeks. We see one of these reasons highlighted in the case of Christopher Ochoa, showcased by the Innocence Project’s “Guilty Plea Problem” campaign.
Police told Ochoa that if he refused to confess to the violent sexual assault and murder of Nancy DePriest, he would be facing the death penalty. The only connection Ochoa had to Ms. DePriest was being an employee at the establishment where she was found after the attack. In return for agreeing to confess, Ochoa was promised that he would be able to go home - a promise would not be fulfilled for another 13 years. On the advice of his attorney, Ochoa agreed to sign a written statement he knew to be untrue and pleaded guilty to a crime he did not commit.
Despite the promises of the police, Ochoa was sentenced to life in prison. While Ochoa was serving his sentence, Texas Governor George W. Bush received letters from a man named Achim Marino, who was in prison serving three life sentences. While in prison, Marino expressed that he had undergone a religious conversion and felt the need to confess his crime. Marino confessed to the rape and murder of Nancy DePriest. On this basis, investigation began again into the death of Ms. De Priest. Using a sample of spermatozoa that was allegedly contaminated during the trial, investigators discovered that Ochoa was not the culprit. He served 13 years of this sentence before he was exonerated in 2002 with help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
Had Ochoa been convicted at trial and sentenced to death (as the police threatened), he would have been added to some already startling statistics. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, innocent people are sentenced to death in staggering numbers. Since 1973, over 140 people have been released from death row after proving they were innocent of the crime that put them there. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how many innocent people have been killed before their innocence could be proven. In the US, at least one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.
Ochoa now uses his experience to raise awareness about the pressures to plead guilty, and he maintains that his guilty plea was the result of police pressure and threat of the death penalty, citing instances in which he was threatened by the repercussions of refusing to confess. Unfortunately, Ochoa is not alone in his experience. Through sharing Ochoa’s story, the Innocence Project hopes to educate the masses about possible reasons that innocent people feel an overwhelming pressure to plead guilty. There are many other causes and many other cases that we will examine with the help if the Innocence Project over the course of their “Guilty Plea Problem” campaign.
For more about Christopher Ochoa's story visit the Innocence Project's website at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/cases/christopher-ochoa/
For more about wrongful conviction by means of guilty pleas visit the Innocence Project's website at: http://guiltypleaproblem.org/