Criminal Justice

California Punishes Wrongfully Convicted Man a Second Time

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Last month, I mentioned the case of James Ochoa, an Orange County, California man wrongly convicted and imprisoned for 16 months for carjacking.

The state of California is now refusing to compensate Ochoa for his wrongful conviction because, they say, by accepting a plea bargain, Ochoa contributed to his own railroading.

A glimpse at the facts of this case shows why that decision is absurd. The OC Weekly reports:

Robert Fitzgerald, a sassy Superior Court judge with an embarrassing track record of being rebuked by appellate courts for judicial improprieties, confronted Ochoa outside the presence of the jury with this offer: Plead guilty and get a two-year-prison sentence, or face the possibility of life in prison if you continue the trial and the jury finds you guilty.

Here's what Ochoa was thinking:

The threat frightened Ochoa. Later, he described to me the factors in his decision: how the Buena Park police detectives had raided his parents' house and arrested him for a crime he didn't commit; how prosecutors had refused to consider the weakness of their case; and, finally, of the white, suburban-dominated Orange County jury members, whom, he believed, would accept law enforcement's word as gospel.

Two years versus life. Taking the plea wasn't part of some elaborate scheme to defraud the state out of wrongful conviction compensation. It was an act of self-preservation. I probably would have done the same thing.

And his suspicions about the system that was prosecuting him were probably more justified than even Ochoa knew at the time.

Remember, this is the case where DNA testing showed that the hair left at the crime scene did not match Ochoa. According to the crime lab technician who conducted the testing, that result was met with fierce resistance from the prosecutors' office, who on two occasions asked her to change her results.

Talk about adding insult to injury. Neither the judge nor the prosecutors have suffered any repercussions for their behavior. Indeed, post-exoneration, the only person being punished for his role in the railroading of James Ochoa . . . is James Ochoa.

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  1. Robert Fitzgerald, a sassy Superior Court judge with an embarrassing track record of being rebuked by appellate courts for judicial improprieties, confronted Ochoa outside the presence of the jury with this offer: Plead guilty and get a two-year-prison sentence, or face the possibility of life in prison if you continue the trial and the jury finds you guilty.

    Sassy is not quite the right word, there. “criminally mediocre” may fit better.

  2. What will it take to make judges and prosecutors who pull this kind of shit get disbarred? Where the hell is the ABA and state bar, and why are they allowing this sort of thing?

  3. Maybe just “criminal”?

  4. Only twice? Geez, they’re not even trying anymore.

    What will it take to make judges and prosecutors who pull this kind of shit get disbarred?

    I hate be a one-phrase Johnny, but ending the Drug War would probably do more than anything else. We could massively decrease the caseload on the system and then maybe we could get actual crimes investigated and prosecuted competently.

  5. Yes, but on the flip side, California Punishes Rightfully Convicted Woman a Second Time — murderer, Sara Jane Olsen. Doesn’t that make up for it?

  6. Fun (possible) fact (adduced by flipping through a hell of a lot of the search results for “prosecutor sentenced”):

    Total jail time served by all the prosecutors in American history found to have criminally violated their oaths, for having been found to have done so – one day.

    Where the hell is the ABA and state bar, and why are they allowing this sort of thing?

    You’re funny.

  7. Concurring with TallDave. I am a one-issue voter; I’ll cast my ballot for Ming the Merciless if he’ll even -promise- to end the War on Drugs.

    In my more expansive moments I like to refer to the day it ends as the start of a new Golden Age. Probably not that simple, but still.

    Meanwhile, shit like what the state has put Mr. Ochoa through drives me crazy.

  8. What the hell is going on in LA with prosecutorial misconduct? Anyone recall the recent Garcetti v. Ceballos case in the US Supreme Court? LA county fired Garcetti, a deputy DA, after he wrote a memo recommending that the DA’s office dismiss a case because an affidavit supporting a warrant was totally bogus.

  9. Name sounds Hispanic. Uh oh, a MEXICAN! He must be guilty! How LA cops (and often juries) see all Hispanics:

    http://z.about.com/d/movies/1/0/g/6/P/grindhousepic18.jpg

  10. I wasn’t aware that judges were even allowed to offer plea-bargains. Where’s the whole ‘impartial arbiter of justice’ deal there? (Not entirely a rhetorical question – I can’t believe that, even in its current debased state, the American justice system routinely allows judges to behave in such a fashion.)

  11. I wasn’t aware that judges were even allowed to offer plea-bargains.

    Umm, they’re not. This guy should be suspended and pulled off the bench just for this little violation of judicial ethics.

  12. According to the crime lab technician who conducted the testing, that result was met with fierce resistance from the prosecutors’ office, who on two occasions asked her to change her results.

    I haven’t RTFA, and I haven’t followed all the details of this case, but it seems to me that sometimes we’re asking the wrong question. We’re asking about ‘flaws’ in our justice system, when really, we’re talking about crimes that are occurring. Taken the above statement at face value, this to me, seems to be a criminal act perpetrated by the D.A.’s office. This isn’t a ‘flaw’ in our justice system any more than murders being committed despite laws making murder illegal are ‘flaws’ in our law enforcement process.

  13. I have to correct myself: Garcetti wasn’t fired but his office retaliated.

  14. Where the hell is the ABA and state bar, and why are they allowing this sort of thing?

    Where’s the ACLU when you need them?

  15. Indeed, post-exoneration, the only person being punished for his role in the railroading of James Ochoa . . . is James Ochoa.

    So why are so so afraid of killing prosecutors and judges who do this kind of shit?

  16. Taken the above statement at face value, this to me, seems to be a criminal act perpetrated by the D.A.’s office.

    Who will have the courage to kill those responsible?

  17. Paul, that was an excellent way of cutting through the semantic garbage. Willful conviction of innocents should be considered a form of treason, like any conscious attempt to undermine our constitution.

    I remember being taught in civics classes “better ten guilty men go free than convict one innocent.” The presumption, of course, was that such conviction was accidental.

  18. h-dawg,

    Or witness tampering, supression of evidence are the first two things that come to mind with how this case proceeded.

  19. So why are so so afraid of killing prosecutors and judges who do this kind of shit?

    I think you know exactly why.

  20. “Michael Ejercito”

    I hope that’s sarcasm. Calling for the death/murder of anyone on this site is a pretty surefire way to get yourself banned.

  21. This was a weird one, because there were multiple eyewitnesses identifying Ochoa as the carjacker (he must have looked very similar to the actual criminal, or the eyewitnesses were morons). I can see why the DA thought he did it because of said eyewitness testimony. I can also see why Ochoa pled guilty. I can also understand the logic that his pleading guilty (as opposed to being convicted) means that he doesn’t deserve compensation for being wrongly convicted (since he wasn’t actually convicted of anything).

    1. In my boyfriend’s case, there were only 3 persons, who commit the crime, yet 5 of them were arrest and only 2 of them were found guilty. Ironically the two that were convicted looked very similar, an uncanny resemblance, almost eerie. No line up was ever conducted nor a six pack (picture I.D.) was conducted, the victim only saw them on a very dark street and then again in court. When the crime was committed a dark blue Chevy was used and when the police pulled Raul over he was in a white Chevy. The police claim a gun was used, yet no gun was recovered they also claim that $260.00 was taken, Raul’s arrest sheet say he only had a few dollars, I believe it was either three or five dollars at the most. At the time of the hearing none of the defendants witness was called to testify. It seems that the witness (victim) was pressured into saying Mr. Escarcega committed the crime, he was intoxicated at the time and an illegal alien.

  22. “I’ll cast my ballot for Ming the Merciless if he’ll even -promise- to end the War on Drugs.”

    Hey Larry, let’s start a write in campaign.

    SLOGAN: He may kill you but not for smoking pot.

  23. Denying potential compensation for wrongful conviction when the defendant pleaded guilty would be asinine.

    Most innocent defendants who plead guilty do so because they are facing severe potential penalties if they proceed to trial. Such was the case here. Doing the above would simply create an additional incentive on the part of prosecutors to stack charges and seek even longer punishments. They have plenty of incentive to do that already; more wood on the fire is not the solution here.

  24. That’s Ming the Empathy-Challenged to you.

    Why should I wage war on drugs when I can wage war on pitiful humans like you? Mwahahaha!

  25. That’s Ming the Empathy-Challenged to you.

    Why should I wage war on drugs when I can wage war on pitiful humans like you? Mwahahaha!

    I give that joke ????.

  26. and, finally, of the white, suburban-dominated Orange County jury members, whom, he believed, would accept law enforcement’s word as gospel.

    Just like me!

    Thank you…

  27. This was a weird one, because there were multiple eyewitnesses identifying Ochoa as the carjacker (he must have looked very similar to the actual criminal, or the eyewitnesses were morons).

    After studies and studies of the extreme fallibility of witness testing, not even DNA evidence can trump it.

  28. SLOGAN: He may kill you but not for smoking pot.

    lawlz

  29. A judge leaning on a defendant to accept a plea-bargain is definitely committing a violation of the defendant’s civil rights. Ochoa should file criminal charges, and also sue Fitzgerald for every penny he’s got.

    -jcr

  30. One other thing: a prosecutor that asks a lab to change results that they don’t like is guilty of obstruction of justice.

    -jcr

  31. I don’t remember much about psychology, but I do remember that eyewitness testimony isn’t very accurate. Humans are amazing in their ability to fill in gaps in memory, and with a little manipulation an eyewitness can change details without even realizing it.

    On the other hand, juries just love an eyewitness who can give a confident, highly-detailed account of what they think happened. Being cynical, I’d bet the most confident person is also most likely to be wrong.

    Anyway, see Loftus, I think she’s the big name in eyewitness studies.

  32. I can also understand the logic that his pleading guilty (as opposed to being convicted) means that he doesn’t deserve compensation for being wrongly convicted (since he wasn’t actually convicted of anything).

    Wtf? Pleading guilty is not “opposed to being convicted” — it is being convicted. Claiming he wasn’t convicted of anything is, besides being an absurd attempt at rationalization, is simply factually false.

    As to whether the conviction is wrongful, it seems to me that any conviction that stems from a wrongful prosecution (i.e. negligence, incompetence or willful misconduct) is wrongful, regardless of whether it is arrived at through a coerced guilty plea or a jury verdict.

  33. Buena Park is at least 30% Hispanic, I wouldn’t think the jury would have been all white and all middle-class even if it does fit in with accepted stereotypes of Orange County. Maybe the jury pool is biased though since it is drawn from registered voters/dmv records which may not include much of the Hispanic population.

    Still, since he was innocent, and clearly knew he was innocent, he must have had a lot of pressure from both the prosecutors and his own lawyer to take the deal rather than risk a trial.

  34. So if I point a gun to your head and say “Give me your money or I’ll shoot you,” you can’t prosecute me for robbery because you chose to give me the money, right?

  35. Jennifer just explained the IRS.

  36. Sounds to me like Fitzgerald has a sever case of malice aforethought.

  37. Although probably correct, this is quite a bold statement for a member of the bar to be making about a sitting judge:

    “”Judge Fitzgerald made a snap decision that James was guilty before the trial, and he did everything he could to bully a guilty plea out of him,” he said. “All we needed was an impartial referee to let the jury hear the evidence. Instead we got someone who has absolutely no business staining the Orange County bench with his foul presence.””

  38. “””So if I point a gun to your head and say “Give me your money or I’ll shoot you,” you can’t prosecute me for robbery because you chose to give me the money, right?”””

    It’s not quite the same. Bulling people into a plea is BS, certainly. But you have the obligation to stand up to bullies. If you didn’t do it never, ever say you did.

    “””I remember being taught in civics classes “better ten guilty men go free than convict one innocent.” The presumption, of course, was that such conviction was accidental.”””

    I remember those days. I think it’s reversed today.

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