Please Plea Me


The L.A. Times' Dana Parsons tells the incredible case of James Ochoa.

Usually when a prosecutor offers a plea bargain and the defendant declines, insisting on a trial, the prosecutor (and sometimes the judge) throws the book at him—for stubbornly wasting the state's time on such constitutional frivolities (see Richard Paey).

That's basically what happened to Ochoa, accused in 2005 of a carjacking.

Though prosecutors had DNA from the actual carjacker's clothing, and that DNA didn't match Ochoa's, they pushed forward with their prosecution anyway, thanks to two eyewitnesses who insisted Ochoa was the culprit. They then let Ochoa listen in person as one eyewitness implicated him before offering him a plea. Ochoa also got to hear the judge who would be sentencing him promise the maximum sentence allowable by law—25 years to life—if Ochoa insisted on a trial and was convicted. If you've ever wondered how an innocent person could cop to a crime he didn't commit, this is certainly one way it happens. Ochoa took the plea, and accepted a two-year prison term.

Ten months into Ochoa's sentence, DNA testing connected the carjacker's clothing to that of a man already convicted of other carjackings. Prosecutors now admit that Ochoa is innocent, and he's been released from prison.

Under California law, Ochoa is now due compensation for his wrongful conviction. But the attorney general's office is holding back. Their reasoning is a hoot: They say Ochoa is partly responsible for his own wrongful conviction because he "voluntarily" plead guilty to a crime he didn't commit. Deputy Attorney General Catherine Chatman wrote in a report arguing against compensation that, "Mr. Ochoa's fear of a lengthy prison term and the mistaken but positive eyewitness identification appear to have been the truly motivating factors" for his wrongful imprisonment.

So according to Chatman, the real culprit here is Ochoa's cowardice. He wasn't wrongfully convicted because the prosecutor went forward with charges despite the presence of exculpatory DNA evidence (it isn't clear from the article if that evidence was turned over to the defense), he was wrongfully convicted because Ochoa himself didn't have the guts to roll the dice with a 25-year prison term. It's his own damned fault.

I guess my question is, if this is truly what the AG's office believes, why stop at merely denying Ochoa compensation? If Ochoa's confession was uncoerced as a matter of law, then he voluntarily confessed under oath to a crime he didn't commit, didn't he?

Why not now charge him with perjury and obstruction of justice?

And if not, why is Catherine Chatman so soft on crime?