Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Drama in Wisconsin

Sometime today the Wisconsin Senate is expected to vote on whether to place a nonbinding referendum on the death penalty on the November election ballot. The vote will be close.

Among those watching from the visitors' gallery in Madison will be Chris Ochoa.

Ochoa was convicted of the 1988 rape and murder of Nancy DePriest at a Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas. After police threatened him with the death penalty, Ochoa confessed to the murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Later, DNA evidence exonerated Ochoa and implicated another man (in prison for another crime) who already had confessed to the crime. (His confessions were ignored and Ochoa basically was rotting away in prison until the Wisconsin Innocence Project took his case.)

Last week, Ochoa graduated from law school -- from the University of Wisconsin Law School.

The Milwaukee Sentinel-Journal did a big story on him. You can read it here. Then Associated Press picked the story up and put it on their national wire. Then local TV aired the story. Then, on Friday of last week, ABC World News Tonight made Ochoa their "person of the week." You can read their story here.

Ochoa's case raises many interesting questions. It paints a picture of how a wrongful confession can occur -- and raises the frightening possibility that this sort of thing happens more often than any of us would care to admit.

And consider one thing: Unlike most crimes, including most murders, there was DNA evidence in Ochoa's case. Yet he nonetheless was convicted and sentenced to life.

That's an important distinction because the death penalty reinstatement proposal that is up for debate in Wisconsin includes a DNA requirement. Yet we know, CSI notwithstanding, that DNA is not a cure-all that prevents fundamental miscarriages of justice from occuring.

Yes, Ochoa will be in the visitors' gallery when the Wisconsin Senate votes later today. Under his watchful eye we all can hope the Senate does the right thing.

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