Only one year after R. Scott Moxley broke the story of the railroading of an innocent man, James Ochoa, by the Orange County DA's office, eleven months after the conviction of Ochoa on the basis of evidence that didn't point to him and a confession coerced by the unprofessional behavior of an OC judge, and one week after he was set free because the evidence of innocence was such that even the OC DA's office could no longer ignore it, the Los Angeles Times prints a decent story on the case James Ochoa. Better late than never, I suppose.
Last December, faced with a DA's office that insisted on prosecuting him even though both the DNA and fingerprint evidence in the case excluded him, and a judge who mocked him and promised him a life sentence if he didn't plead guilty before the end of the trial, James Ochoa plead guilty to a carjacking and armed robbery he didn't commit. It wasn't just a shameful moment for justice in OC, it was a truly bizarre one. As H.G. Reza notes in his Times story:
In most cases where DNA is used to free someone wrongly convicted, the evidence is uncovered after trial. In Ochoa's case the Orange County district attorney's office knew beforehand that DNA in the case did not come from Ochoa but went ahead anyway.
Those circumstances were not of much interest to the Times, or just about anyone else, last year. A young Latino accused of carjacking, says he's innocent, something about DNA… yawn. Reza does cite one honorable exception to the general indifference.
Ochoa's case was first reported last year by the OC Weekly, which called it a miscarriage of justice. Prosecutors and police harshly criticized the paper for taking up the case.
That should sound familiar to longtime readers of the Weekly. Weekly uncovers miscarriage of justice. Weekly is roundly denounced by those whose incompetence or worse has been exposed. Weekly is proven right. Other papers eventually get around to reporting the story.
To be fair, it takes more than just an excellent and determined reporter like R. Scott Moxley and a plucky little engine of truth like the Weekly to expose a miscarriage of justice–it takes people willing to miscarry justice in the first place. And thanks to the stellar leadership Tony Rackauckas, the DA's office is a reliable source of material for the Weekly. (To be even fairer, when the rest of the media is generally complacent and seldom challenges the authorities, miscarriages become easier to pull off.)
Of course, now that the DNA has been matched to someone already jailed for another carjacking (who then confessed to the crime) and Ochoa has been set free, the DA's office feels “terrible” about the whole thing. “I felt terrible about what happened,” DA Rackaukas told Moxley last week, when Scott reported on Ochoa's release from prison. Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA's office spokesperson, told the Times the office “feels terrible.” If Superior Court Judge Robert Fitzgerald, whose disgraceful behavior Scott recounts here, feels terrible, he's keeping it to himself.
Of course, feeling terrible doesn't stop the DA's office from still trying to justify its actions. Assistant DA Marc Rozenberg offered the Times some reasons for his office hounding Ochoa into prison, but to the Times' credit, Reza exposes Rozenberg's reasons for the nonsense they are.
The Times article does add one new detail to the story.
The two district attorney's investigators who picked [Ochoa] up from the Imperial County prison Oct. 20 and drove him to Orange County suggested he join the Army to turn his life around.
Think about that: telling someone your office railroaded into prison that he should now join the Army, which, of course, would no doubt result in a quick trip to Iraq. And they told him this during a month when the news was full of reports on the remarkably high death toll of US troops in Iraq. Congratulations James Ochoa, you're free, now go get killed or maimed.
Ochoa decided not to follow that advice. He's moved to Texas instead.