On October 24, 1988, 20-year-old Nancy DePriest was working alone in a Pizza Hut restaurant in Austin, Texas, when she was tied up, raped and murdered.
Days later, an employee at the restaurant saw two men, Christopher Ochoa
, 22, and Richard Danziger, 18, eating pizza, drinking beer in the restaurant and seemly raising toasts in DePriest’s honor.
Because police believed that a master key had been used to gain entrance to the restaurant and because their behavior seemed suspicious, the two men, roommates who worked at another Austin area Pizza Hut, became the lead suspects.
In November, police questioned both men and Danziger denied having anything to do with the crime, although, according to police, he seemed to know details about the crime that were not public knowledge.
Ochoa was interrogated separately and police said he confessed, saying that Danziger shot DePriest and that both men had raped her.
Ochoa, who was facing the death penalty, accepted an offer from the prosecution and pled guilty to murder in May 1989. He agreed to testify against Danziger at trial.
Danziger went to trial in Travis County in January 1990. Called to the witness stand, Ochoa contradicted his confession, saying that he, not Danziger, had shot DePriest.
Ochoa testified that the two had planned to rob the Pizza Hut, had tied up and raped DePriest, and that he shot her because she recognized him. He testified that he and Danziger sexually assaulted the victim eight times.
The only forensic evidence that linked Danziger to the crime was a pubic hair found near the blood in the restaurant that was said to be microscopically consistent with Danziger's pubic hair.
A lab analyst from the Texas Department of Public Safety also testified that semen was detected on the vaginal swab from the rape kit. The blood type detected from this sample was similar to the blood types of Danziger and the victim.
In fact, because the tests failed to reveal a blood type dissimilar to a victim, no potential source of the semen could be excluded because the victim's blood group markers could have “masked” the perpetrator.
Danziger presented an alibi defense, claiming to have been with his girlfriend that night.
On February 1, 1990, Danziger was convicted of rape. Both men were sentenced to life in prison.
In February 1998, Achim Josef Marino, a convict who was serving three life sentences in a Texas prison for aggravated robbery – and who had become a born-again Christian – wrote a letter to Gov. George W. Bush. It began: “Re: Murder Confession.”
In the letter, Marino said “my conscience sickens me” because he alone raped and murdered DePriest. Danziger and Ochoa were not involved.
“I tell you this, sir,” wrote Marino. “I did this awful crime and I was alone.”
Marino said evidence tying him to the crime—including DePriest’s keys—could be found at his parents’ home. Marino said he had begun writing and confessing to the police in 1996, but after getting no response, was appealing to Bush to take action.
After the police received another letter from Marino that contained a detailed description of the scene, they began re-investigating.
Officers went to his parents’ home and found the keys and other evidence, including bank pouches and a pistol.
Investigators approached both Danziger and Ochoa again. By then Danziger was housed in a mental institution because he had sustained severe and permanent brain damage after he was attacked by another inmate in prison. Ochoa, who later said he was still intimidated by the police who interrogated him, told the same story he had told at trial.
In June 1999, Ochoa reached out to the Wisconsin Innocence Project, headed by Keith Findley and John Pray. Students there began investigating his claim of innocence.
In November 2000, DNA tests on the semen recovered from the victim excluded Ochoa and Danziger, and matched Marino's DNA.
Ochoa was released on bond January 16, 2001. Danziger was released on March 22, 2001. Both were exonerated on February 6, 2002.
Both men later filed wrongful conviction lawsuits against Travis County and the City of Austin.
Danziger, who requires lifelong care due to his brain damage, received $9 million from Austin, $1 million from Travis County and $500,000 from Ochoa for wrongfully implicating him in the crime. Danziger also received $250,000 in state compensation. Ochoa received $5.3 million from the City of Austin.
– Maurice Possley