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2 big El Paso cases in which the convicted were exonerated years later

Published On: Jan 14 2014 05:16:35 PM CST
Updated On: Jun 14 2014 11:37:34 AM CDT
EL PASO, Texas -

Big El Paso cases in which the two convicted were exonerated.

Brandon Moon - served 17 years for rape.

Associated Press Dec. 22, 2004 - A man who served nearly 17 years for rape was freed from prison Dec. 21, 2004 after DNA tests determined he was not responsible for the crime.

Brandon Moon, 43, joined his parents, Frank and Shirley Moon, for the drive to their home in Kansas City, Mo., following his release from the El Paso County jail. He said he felt "numb."

"Have you ever had Novocain? It's a lot like that, just from head to toe," he said.

Moon had been serving a 75-year sentence after his 1988 conviction for sexual assault. The El Paso district attorney and defense lawyers filed a successful joint motion to vacate the conviction.

Nina Morrison, an attorney with the New York-based Innocence Project, said he would be released on $1 bond until his conviction was officially vacated by the state Court of Criminal Appeals.

"My office and the state of Texas, in the interest of truth, recognize the injustice Mr. Moon has suffered," said El Paso County Dist. Atty. Jaime Esparza, who did not prosecute Moon.

He may be eligible for compensation from the state of $425,000, or up to $25,000 for each year of his incarceration.

Moon said he never lost faith when officials wouldn't listen while he maintained his innocence. "They're listening now," he said.

As for his future, "At least in part I'll continue making belt buckles, which has kind of kept me going over the years," he said of his silversmith work. "What I'll be doing other than that, I don't know."

The motion to vacate Moon's conviction was based on recent DNA tests by the Texas Department of Public Safety, which defense attorneys and Esparza say prove Moon did not commit the April 1987 aggravated sexual assault.

Serologist Glen Adams had testified that Moon was among the 15% of the population that could possibly have been the source of the semen evidence.

Innocence Project lawyers contended the testimony implied Moon was the likely rapist — despite other biological evidence that exonerated him.

"This case shows that the well-documented problems of crime lab error … occur all over Texas," said lawyer Barry Scheck, the Innocence Project co-director. "This is also a classic case where faulty eyewitness identification procedures implicated the wrong man."

Department of Public Safety officials disputed that analysis.

"During the original trial, the DPS analyst's testimony concluded that Brandon Moon could not be eliminated as a suspect," the agency said in a statement.

 

Chris Ochoa - served 12 years for murder. Named ABCNews Person of the Week May 12, 2006.

Chris Ochoa never dreamed he would make it to college, never mind law school, but today, at age 39, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a law degree and was elected by his fellow students to be the commencement speaker.

He's a bit old for law school, but he was otherwise occupied for some time, spending 12 years in prison for a brutal crime he did not commit.

"They placed me in a cell by myself and the doors clanged," Ochoa said. "I was so, so alone in the world … sometimes I still have nightmares about that night."

That was his first night in prison, in 1988.

Ochoa was raised by hard-working parents in El Paso, Texas, and had never been in trouble before the incident that led to his incarceration.

After a 20-year-old Pizza Hut worker in Austin, Texas, was raped and killed, Ochoa was questioned and confessed under great pressure.

"I was scared. They are telling me I might die in a death chamber," Ochoa said. "They wear you down. I'm not the first person to sign a false confession."

He was sentenced to life, and then while in prison, he nearly took his own life.

"My lowest point came in 1996, Christmas Eve 1996. I just couldn't deal with the pain anymore," Ochoa said. "I broke a razor open and I put the razor right up against my wrist, my arm … I really wanted to die."

But he got rid of the razor blade, went back to the church and took advantage of the education programs for inmates.

Finding Freedom and a New Career

Ochoa continued to study while in prison, eventually receiving two associate's degrees and then working on his bachelor's degree when he found freedom.

He was freed from prison, thanks to the directors of the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School. They spent years trying to prove Ochoa was innocent, even though another man had confessed to the crime, and told police where to find the murder weapon.

Ochoa was finally released in 2001, and instead of being bitter about the experience, he finished college and was accepted into the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he then worked for the Innocence Project.

"It was hard seeing these cases," Ochoa said. "Sometimes they get me angry. Sometimes DAs were being just jerks."

He says it was the attorneys at the Innocence Project who inspired him to pursue a career in the law. "I want to thank you from the very bottom of my heart for making me feel like I belong in society once again," Ochoa said in his commencement speech.

Now that he's a law school graduate, Ochoa is going to do a bit of traveling and then decide what kind of law he wants to practice. But he says he will probably steer clear of criminal law, because he gets too emotional about the subject.

 

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