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.