This is part three of a series highlighting some of the most influential students on the University of Wisconsin campus.
Imagine living 12 years of your life behind bars for a crime you did not commit.
Such was the unfortunate reality for Chris Ochoa, a third-year law student at the University of Wisconsin, who served 12 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder.
Without hope and without freedom, Ochoa contacted the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which proved to be the miracle program responsible for turning his life around.
"Without the Wisconsin Innocence Project I wouldn't be where I am today," Ochoa said. "I wouldn't be here at Wisconsin, and, more importantly, I wouldn't have my freedom."
In 1988, Chris Ochoa, then 22 years old, was convicted of murdering Nancy DePriest outside of a local Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas. He was sentenced to prison, with the death penalty a likely possibility.
During the investigation into DePriest's murder, Ochoa broke down and confessed to the crime after he was continually interrogated for two days, even though he did not kill DePriest.
"Today Ochoa is a law student and his case shows that people can falsely confess to the worst of crimes and still be a smart and rational person," John Pray, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said. "It shows the power of interrogation and being able to instill so much fear in someone that they would falsely admit to a horrible crime."
The Wisconsin Innocence Project is a clinical program within the UW Law School, comprised of 12 law students, attorneys and professors who investigate and litigate claims of innocence on behalf of prisoners primarily within the state of Wisconsin.
The Innocence Project is a national program that started at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York by attorney Barry Scheck. The Innocence Project has grown within the past decade, and today more than 30 states employ the Innocence Project.
Founded in 1998 by law professors Keith Findley and John Pray, the Wisconsin branch of the Innocence Project is still in its infancy. In the past decade, the Wisconsin Innocence Project has handled high profile cases and successfully overturned six verdicts.
In Ochoa's case, DNA evidence was ultimately responsible for proving his innocence.
When exoneration occurs, it usually makes big news, like it did when DNA evidence was used to clear Wisconsin native Steven Avery.
Wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1986, Avery was sentenced to 32 years in prison. After serving 18 years of the sentence, DNA tests were conducted on evidence that had been ignored throughout the trial and Avery was released from prison in 2003.
Findley, co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said wrongful convictions have proven to be a significant problem nationwide and added the main goal of the Innocence Project is to limit the amount of instances where this occurs. A study showed that in the past 15 years, more than 340 people were convicted of crimes they did not commit.
"We can learn from these cases what it is that causes wrongful convictions and improve the system so fewer incidences of wrongful convictions will occur in the future," Findley said.
Pray added the Wisconsin Innocence Project is a great way for UW law students to learn about the field they are pursuing. Every day, small strides are being taken to better the judicial system, and the Innocence Project has been a major contributor.
"Obtaining justice is getting to the bottom of the truth, the WIP helps victims get to the truth by getting finality," Ochoa said. "Juries are finally starting to look more closely at evidence whereas before the Innocence Project, they acted as rubber stamp juries. The WIP has influenced juries to be more careful when examining evidence."
The Wisconsin Innocence Project continues to revolutionize the judicial system and continues to work in the favor of those like Ochoa, who have experienced much of life behind bars due to a wrongful conviction.