The following opinion was originally published in the Houston Chronicle on April 18, 2009.
Jurors regret convicting innocent man
By CAROL BOHLS, VELMA DIAMOND and LIZ ROLAND
April 18, 2009
When we were called to serve as jurors in an Austin sexual assault and murder case, we could never have predicted the ending of this story. Twelve years after we found Richard Danziger guilty of aggravated sexual assault, new DNA evidence revealed that Richard was, in fact, innocent. This shocking discovery left us confused, angry and wondering how this tragic error could have ever happened.
The centerpiece of the case presented against Danziger in 1990 was testimony provided by his friend and alleged co-conspirator, Christopher Ochoa. When Ochoa took the stand to testify against Danziger, he presented a convincing summary of events that left little doubt in our minds that both were guilty of this terrible crime. What we did not know, however, was that Ochoa’s confession and testimony were false — he only confessed and agreed to testify against Danziger after 20 intense hours of interrogation.
Unfortunately, Danziger’s case is not unique. False confessions have played a role in about 25 percent of the 234 DNA exonerations across the country. Whether because of mental incapacity, youth or persuasive threats, DNA evidence proved that each of these people was convicted of a crime he did not commit.
We were horrified to learn after Danziger’s exoneration that Ochoa’s interrogation was characterized by lies about inculpatory evidence and threats that if he did not confess and testify against Danziger, he would receive the death penalty. None of this came to light during the trial, however, because there was no record of the interrogation procedure. Had we been given the opportunity to see the context of Ochoa’s confession, including the coercive tactics that were used for hours against him, we would have at least had something to deliberate about. We did the best we could with the evidence provided to us; unfortunately, that evidence was dangerously incomplete, undocumented and untrue.
It has taken us a long time to come to terms with what happened to Danziger — in many ways we still haven’t. We are still dismayed at participating in what we can only describe as the destruction of a young man’s life. Not only were Ochoa and Danziger wrongly imprisoned, but Danziger suffered a horrible attack while incarcerated that left him seriously disabled for the rest of his life. We still share with family and friends the resounding negative impact this experience has had on our lives and our opinions of the criminal justice system.
If interrogations are recorded in their entirety — from the reading of rights to the end — jurors will have access to a clear, complete picture of the circumstances that led to a confession. This is essential in order to effectively evaluate the quality of that evidence. While many police departments have begun to record suspect interrogations, there is currently no requirement that they do so. Some things are too important to leave optional, and we think this is one of them. A complete record of suspect interrogations documents a crucial part of a criminal investigation, and it is essential for jurors to do their jobs well and reach justice.
Police officers who record interrogations know first-hand the benefits of such a policy, too. This powerful tool protects them from false claims of abuse and provides the best evidence possible to convict the guilty. By taking the step to require recorded interrogations, Texas can demonstrate to the public that we have learned from our mistakes and can begin to regain the trust that has been lost through misconduct and wrongful conviction. We will settle for nothing less than the best quality evidence possible.
Bohls, of Austin, Diamond, of Clifton, Mo., and Roland, of Pflugerville, were jurors in the wrongful conviction case of Richard Danizger.