A co-defendant's false confession sent Richard Danzinger to prison for life; DNA exonerated him 12 years later
Richard Danzinger spent 12 years in prison for a 1988 rape and murder of which he was convicted as a result of a confession coerced by police from a co-defendant, Christopher Ochoa. While in prison for the crime he did not commit, Danzinger was severely beaten by another prisoner and suffered severe brain damage that incapacitated him for life.
The victim of the crime for which Danzinger and Ochoa were wrongfully convicted was Nancy DePriest, the 20-year-old manager of a pizza restaurant in Austin, Texas. Danzinger and Ochoa were arrested based on a tip that they had been talking about the crime in the restaurant a few days after it occurred. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime. Danzinger steadfastly asserted that he was innocent, but after two 12-hour interrogation sessions, Ochoa concluded that he had to choose between death by lethal injection and life in prison. He chose the latter. To avoid the death penalty, he agreed to sign confessions concocted by the police. As part of a plea bargain, he agreed to testify against Danzinger.
Actual killer confesses
Eight years later, a convict named Achim Josef Marino sent letters to various Texas officials - including then-Governor George W. Bush - stating that two innocent men were in prison for the DePriest murder, which Marino proclaimed he alone had committed. Although Marino received no response, Austin Police did go to interview Ochoa. Even this far removed from the events that put him and his best friend in prison, however, he continued profess guilt. Later he explained that he feared claiming innocence would hurt his chance for parole.
But three years later, in 1999, Ochoa had a change of heart. He wrote to the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison, seeking assistance. Students there, working under the direction of Innocence Project co-directors Keith Findley and John Pray, began looking into the case. When the students discovered that biological evidence recovered from the victim had been preserved, Findley and Pray sought DNA testing. Finally, late in 2000, DNA and other corroborating evidence proved beyond any doubt that neither Ochoa nor Danzinger had been involved in the crime.
Exoneration of Danzinger and Ochoa
On January 16, 2001, the state of Texas and Ochoa's lawyers filed a joint application to set aside his conviction on the ground of actual innocence. Ochoa walked out of court that day into the arms of his sobbing mother and into a world he hadn't seen firsthand in more than a decade.
Danzinger's release was delayed until the following March because of the brain damage he had suffered at the hands of another prisoner. He could not be released until adequate arrangements were made for his care.
— Rob Warden