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Austin, Texas, Settles Wrongful Conviction Suit for $9 Million

by Matthew T. Clarke

On July 17, 2003, the City of Austin, Texas settled for $9 million a suit brought by the guardian of a wrongfully convicted Texas prisoner.

Richard Danziger, 31, a wrongfully convicted Texas state prisoner, spent 12 years in prison for a rape-murder he didn't commit. In 1988, a woman was raped and murdered at a Pizza Hut in Austin. Danziger and Chris Ochoa worked at other Austin Pizza Huts. Suspicion focused on them when several weeks after the murder they appeared at the crime scene acting oddly and toasting the victim's memory.

Under police questioning, Ochoa confessed to the murders and implicated Danziger. Danziger maintained his innocence, but was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1990. In 1996, Texas state prisoner Achim Marino began writing letters to the Austin police, DA, and eventually then governor George W. Bush, confessing to the murder and stating that evidence of the crime could be found at his mother's house. Texas officials ignored Marino for years. Ochoa didn't recant his confession until 2000. Austin police finally stopped by Marino's mother's house and picked up the murder weapon and a Pizza Hut bank bag Marino had stashed there. However, they didn't have to tell Danziger or his attorney about it. Two years later, after the Wisconsin Innocence Project became involved and DNA testing showed Marino was the murderer, Danziger and Ochoa were released. [PLN, July 2003, p. I].

On February 27, 1991 while in prison, Danziger was kicked in the head by another prisoner, resulting in a subdural hematoma requiring surgical removal of part of his brain. His sister, Barbara Oakley, is his legal guardian and care provider. She initiated a suit for Danziger under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the city of Austin, police detectives Hector Palanco, Bruce Boardman and Edward Balagia, police captain Bruce Mills, Police Chief James Everett, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice MCA)), and unnamed "John Doe" Austin city officials, alleging violations of Danziger's civil rights. Danziger was represented by Austin attorneys Scott Ozmun and Jeff Edwards. The complaint filed with the federal district court alleged that police coerced and concocted Ochoa's confession and threatened Danziger's alibi witness if she testified in his favor. It also alleged the Austin police and D.A. failed to inform Danziger of Marino's confession or the evidence they recovered because of it.

Danziger claimed pain and suffering from imprisonment between November 15, 1988, and February 6, 2002, and physical, psychological, and emotional trauma from the brain injury and resultant seizures for which he requires 24-hour care. He is expected to incur $5 million in lifetime medical expenses due to the brain injury.

TDCJ is a defendant in a separate action in Travis County (TX) probate court and was dismissed from this case without prejudice in April 2003. On July 17, 2003, the Austin City Council approved a $9 million settlement which had been reached in mediation. Barbara Oakley for Danziger v. City of Austin, USDC WD TX, Case No. A-02-CA-711-JN.

In late November, 2003, the Austin City Council approved a $5.3 million settlement for Ochoa. Initially reluctant to settle the suit because Ochoa had confessed to the murder, the city council reconsidered due to concerns about how the confession was obtained. "There was concern that more false confessions might come to light," said Ochoa's lawyer, Bill Allison. A homicide detective involved in obtaining Ochoa's confession was later fired for alleged coercion and mistreatment of suspects, but later rehired and allowed to retire after he won a lawsuit against Austin. Ochoa is now a first year law student at the University of Wisconsin. The University's Wisconsin Innocence Project was instrumental in proving Danziger's and Ochoa's innocence. Part of the settlement requires $500,000 of Ochoa's damages to go to Danziger. "I am sorry, I feel guilty about what happened to Richard Danziger," Said Ochoa. "I feel very bad for not having had the courage to stand up to the police."

Source: VerdictSearch, Texas Reporter, Dallas Morning NEws.

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Related legal case

Barbara Oakley for Danziger v. City of Austin