California Punishes Wrongfully Convicted Man a Second Time

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

Last month, I mentioned the case of James Ochoa, an Orange County, California man wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 16 months for carjacking.

The state of California is now refusing to compensate Ochoa for his wrongful conviction because, they say, by accepting a plea bargain, Ochoa contributed to his own railroading.

A glimpse at the facts of this case shows why that decision is absurd. The OC Weekly reports:

Robert Fitzgerald, a sassy Superior Court judge with an embarrassing track record of being rebuked by appellate courts for judicial improprieties, confronted Ochoa outside the presence of the jury with this offer: Plead guilty and get a two-year-prison sentence, or face the possibility of life in prison if you continue the trial and the jury finds you guilty.

Here’s what Ochoa was thinking:

The threat frightened Ochoa. Later, he described to me the factors in his decision: how the Buena Park police detectives had raided his parents’ house and arrested him for a crime he didn’t commit; how prosecutors had refused to consider the weakness of their case; and, finally, of the white, suburban-dominated Orange County jury members, whom, he believed, would accept law enforcement’s word as gospel.

Two years versus life. Taking the plea wasn’t part of some elaborate scheme to defraud the state out of wrongful conviction compensation. It was an act self-preservation. I probably would have done the same thing.

And his suspicions about the system that was prosecuting him were probably more justified than even Ochoa knew at the time.

Remember, this is the case where DNA testing showed that the hair left at the crime scene did not match Ochoa. According to the crime lab technician who conducted the testing, that result was met with fierce resistance from the prosecutors’ office, who on two occasions asked her to change her results.

Talk about adding insult to injury. Neither the judge nor the prosecutors have suffered any repercussions for their behavior. Indeed, post-exoneration, the only person being punished for his role in the railroading of James Ochoa . . . is James Ochoa.

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12 Responses to “California Punishes Wrongfully Convicted Man a Second Time”

  1. #1 |  anonymous | 

    I live in Buena Park. A lot of the cops here are a-holes so it doesn’t surprise me that Ochoa got the treatment. Typical CAlifornia BS. The OC Weekly has done a great job of exposing police brutality, psychological and physical.

  2. #2 |  Leshrac | 

    I can’t understand where there is obvious and provable evidence of a malicious prosocution that the DA’s don’t lose their jobs. IMMEDIATELY!!

  3. #3 |  Burdell | 

    If two private parties entered into a contract under similar circumstances as that plea bargain, very few—if any—courts would blink twice before holding it voidable.

    If the principles of duress and undue influence protect you from other private individuals, why shouldn’t they protect you even more so from the state, which wields much more awful power?

  4. #4 |  Burdell | 

    It’s also worth noting that the exact opposite argument was use against Genarlow Wilson in Georgia. There the prosecutor argued Wilson deserved to be in prison because he could have taken a plea bargain and didn’t.

    Heads I win, tails you lose.

  5. #5 |  supercat | 

    Plea bargains should be abolished. If the state can really prove a person committed a crime, the person should be punished. If the state can’t prove it, the person should go 100% free. Plea bargains serve to ‘equalize’ the treatment of the guilty and the innocent, never minding that their treatment isn’t SUPPOSED to be equal (or even close to it).

  6. #6 |  Lloyd Flack | 

    How about making it a criminal offence for a prosecutor and possibly a judge to obtain a guilty plea from an innocent person? The prosecutor would have to show that it was reasonable at the time to believe beyond reasonable doubt that the victim was in fact guilty. Recklessness and tunnel vision should at the very least cost prosecutors their jobs.

  7. #7 |  matt | 

    i see what fitzgerald did to ochoa as a form extortion. i know it wasn’t for money or property, as the actual definition states, but he did intimidate and coerce ochoa to obtain a guilty plea. what else you would call it?

  8. #8 |  tarran | 

    Lloyd Flack, it is already illegal: it’s called denying someone their civil rights under color of authority, and is a federal felony.

    of course, it is rarely enforced.

  9. #9 |  chsw | 

    Perhaps James Ochoa should contact the attorney for the Duke lacrosse players. Same s@#$, different state.

    chsw

  10. #10 |  Jimi G | 

    “Plea bargains should be abolished. If the state can really prove a person committed a crime, the person should be punished. If the state can’t prove it, the person should go 100% free. Plea bargains serve to ‘equalize’ the treatment of the guilty and the innocent, never minding that their treatment isn’t SUPPOSED to be equal (or even close to it).”

    I’ll up the ante. Stare decisis, the principle of using established case law as precedent, should be eliminated as well. Every case should be decided fresh by actual individuals involved in adjudicating the case.

  11. #11 |  Mark Z. | 

    Jimi G: You’re arguing for making the law unpredictable. This is a bad thing. The law is complicated enough without every single judge pulling a different interpretation out of his ass. Can you imagine writing a contract under that system?

  12. #12 |  chris | 

    hmm, if I commit mal-practice and some very ill person gets more ill, I lose my house. Why are these lawyes/judges treated so differently.

    If a judge makes a terrible decision, or worse commits outright crime, where is the punishment?

    Finally, why are lawyers and judges the ones responsible for managing lawyers and judges? Anyone think, just maybe, they’ll look out for their own?

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