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Lately, several bloggers have been calling attention to the urgent problem of wrongful conviction. When an innocent person is convicted of a murder, it’s obviously an enormous injustice for that individual and his or her family, and one that needs to be redressed.
An aspect of the problem that has gotten relatively less discussion is that wrongful conviction is an injustice for victims’ families, too. On this subject, here’s an excerpt from the afterword that I wrote for Richard Stack’s very good book Dead Wrong: Violence, Vengeance, and the Victims of Capital Punishment, which came out last year:
When the wrong person is convicted of and sentenced for a murder, it is not only the innocent defendant who suffers; the family of the murder victim suffers as well.
Jeanette Popp’s story makes this clear. For years after her 20-year-old daughter Nancy DePriest was raped and murdered during a robbery of the Pizza Hut where she worked, Jeanette Popp believed she knew who was responsible: two men named Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger, who were arrested a couple of months after the crime and eventually sentenced to life in prison. Jeanette had no idea that while Ochoa and Danziger were in one Texas prison, an inmate at another prison, Achim Marino, was writing letters to the county district attorney and to then-Governor George W. Bush, saying that he was the one who had robbed the Pizza Hut and killed Nancy DePriest. Marino said that he acted alone and had no idea why two other men had confessed.
Meanwhile, Chris Ochoa was writing to the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explaining that he was serving a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit and that the police had coerced him into confessing to the crime and implicating his roommate, Richard Danziger, as well.
DNA evidence eventually exonerated Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger and confirmed the truth of Achim Marino’s confession. Chris Ochoa and Richard Danziger were released after spending twelve years in prison.
Although Ochoa and Danziger were wrongfully sentenced to life in prison, rather than to death, the death penalty apparently figured prominently in the events that led to the wrongful conviction. It has now come out that Ochoa’s confession followed two grueling days of police questioning, during which police openly threatened Ochoa by telling him that he would receive the death penalty if he didn’t cooperate (and even going so far as to jab his arm with a pen in a gesture mimicking lethal injection.)
Jeanette Popp believes the death penalty should be abolished so that it can no longer be used as a threat to coerce confessions from innocent people. But when she first learned that the two men she had believed were guilty might not be guilty after all, her most pressing question was, has the original story been a lie? Everything she thought she knew about her daughter’s murder was now called into question.
“Survivors of murder victims want to know the truth,” explains Renny Cushing as he reflects on the intersection between the issues of wrongful conviction and victims’ needs. “They want to know what happened, they want to know what their loved one’s last moments were like, they want to try to understand the story of this terrible event. When you learn that the wrong person was being punished all this time, all the facts you thought you had come to understand, the facts that helped you move forward, have all been stripped away. You have to start all over again – it’s as though the murder just took place.”