Ten months after he pled guilty to carjacking and armed robbery, James Ochoa’s sentence was vacated by a judge and he was released from prison. Though Ochoa had already been excluded from the DNA evidence at the time of trial, prosecutors were sure he did the crime. A routine run of DNA profile from the crime scene evidence through the national CODIS DNA database matched a man in custody for carjacking and who subsequently confessed to this crime, exonerating James Ochoa.
At 12:30 a.m. on May 22, 2005 in Buena Park, California, two young Hispanic men were approached by another young Hispanic male, who pulled out a gun and demanded their wallets and the key to one victim’s Volkswagen Jetta. The perpetrator wore a black baseball cap and a flannel shirt. He drove off in the victim’s car with $600 from their wallets. The victims immediately called the police.
When the responding officer took the description of the perpetrator from the victims, he immediately thought of James Ochoa. Earlier that night, James Ochoa was sitting with two friends outside of his house, which was a few blocks from the robbery. The responding officer had approached them and had searched them, but found no contraband or illegal drugs.
Immediately after the victims finished describing the perpetrator, the officer pulled up a picture of James Ochoa on his laptop computer. One victim saw only Ochoa’s photograph, while the other saw photographs of Ochoa’s two friends (who did not resemble the description just taken) first. Both victims said that the man in the picture “looked like” the perpetrator.
Just after 1:00 a.m., the stolen Jetta was recovered two blocks from the site of the carjacking, a short distance from Ochoa’s house. On the front seat of the locked car was a grey shirt and a black hat. The victims were taken to the car and told the police that the clothing inside belonged to the perpetrator. When the car was towed by police, a black BB gun fell out from under the rear fender. The victims identified the gun as the weapon used by the perpetrator.
At around 3:00 a.m., a bloodhound dog named “Trace” was brought to the scene. Over the course of one hour, Trace allegedly followed the scent from a swab from the perpetrator’s baseball cap to Ochoa’s front door.
Ochoa was arrested and the two victims were brought to Ochoa’s house around 6:00 a.m.. Ochoa was standing on his front lawn, shirtless and in handcuffs. The victims identified him again.
The victims identified Ochoa a third time two months later in a live lineup.
The Biological Evidence
The black baseball hat, grey shirt, BB gun, and the Jetta’s steering wheel cover were all sent to the Orange County Crime Laboratory. Ochoa was eliminated as a possible contributor to DNA on the evidence. More importantly, the major contributor on the baseball hat and on the gun grip exhibited the same unknown male profile. A CODIS database run did not identify the male. A latent fingerprint found on the Jetta’s gearshift knob also did not match Ochoa or either victim.
According to news reports, prosecutors attempted to exert pressure on a crime lab analyst who conducted the tests that exonerated Ochoa. The Orange County Weekly has reported that a deputy district attorney contacted the lab and asked an analyst to change her report – to indicate that Ochoa could have been the perpetrator – before sharing it with Ochoa’s defense attorneys. The lab analyst refused to change the report.
The Guilty Plea
Ochoa said that he was home all night on the night of the crime. At least five family members confirmed his story. Attorney Scott Borthwick represented Ochoa pro bono. A judge threatened Ochoa with a sentence of 25 years to life in prison if a jury found him guilty, and against his attorney’s advice, Ochoa accepted a plea bargain in December 2005 that led to a sentence of two years in prison.
In October 2006, a man named Jaymes T. McCollum entered the Los Angeles County Jail on unrelated carjacking charges. When McCollum’s DNA was entered into CODIS, Buena Park police officer Pete Montez saw that McCollum matched the unknown male profile from Ochoa’s case. When Montez confronted him with this information, McCollum confessed to the May 2005 carjacking. The officer informed the Orange County district attorney, who filed a People’s Petition for Immediate Habeas Corpus Relief on October 18, 2006. The next day, the same judge who tried Ochoa vacated the conviction.
On October 20, 2006, at 6:30AM, correctional officials told Ochoa that he was leaving. Ochoa did not know about the CODIS hit or that his sentence had been vacated. He was not represented by an attorney at the time. He got a ride back to Orange County in a car from the district attorney’s office after officials bought him lunch and a set of clothing, sixteen months after he had been arrested for a crime he did not commit.