For Buena Park's James Ochoa, the indescribable agony of spending 16 months locked in the Orange County Jail and a California prison for crimes he did not commit is a bit less painful today.
This afternoon, a state board in Sacramento voted 3 to 0 to award Ochoa nearly $30,000 in compensation in one of the final chapters of a bizarre law enforcement case. (Witnesses at the scene say board member Rosario Marin, a member of the governor's cabinet, argued against the payment but must have recorded a favorable vote to join State Controller John Chiang and San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos. California law permits wrongfully imprisoned people to apply for a $100-per-day fee for time spent in prison. Time in county lockup doesn't count.
"It's like a miracle," Ochoa lawyer Scott Borthwick said immediately after the hearing. "Every step of the way James had been screwed by government authorities. Finally, this board stood up and did the right thing."
In 2005, police arrested and prosecutors charged Ochoa—then 20 years old—for a robbery/carjacking near a Buena Park nightclub. A pre-trial article in the Weekly demonstrated numerous gaping holes in the government's case, and yet law enforcement officers refused to drop it. Most significantly, DNA evidence left at the scene of the crime did not match Ochoa. There were also substantial questions surrounding the competence and integrity of a police dog handler. In the middle of the trial, Superior Court Judge Robert Fitzgerald pressured Ochoa to accept a two-year prison deal by threatening to send him away for the rest of his life if a jury found him guilty. Over Borthwick's objections, Ochoa took the deal. Justice arrived 16 months after the ordeal began when crime lab officials matched the DNA from the crime to a prisoner sitting in the Los Angeles County Jail. Fitzgerald quickly released Ochoa from prison.
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Earlier this year, the Weekly revealed that prior to trial prosecutors had asked the crime lab to alter its findings that Ochoa was excluded as a source of the DNA. You can read that story here.
The Innocence Project, by famed defense lawyers Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld, features the case on its website.
Ochoa's civil rights lawsuit is set for trial in federal court on May 20 in the Ronald Reagan Federal Court Building.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly