Burden of Innocence
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photo of danzigerrichard danziger

At home, Jacksonville, Florida
With sister and legal guardian, Barbara, and family
Served 12 years of a life sentence

In 1988, a young woman was opening the Pizza Hut she managed in Austin, Texas, when she was tied up, raped, and shot in the head. Money was stolen. Richard Danziger and Chris Ochoa, roommates at the time, worked at a nearby Pizza Hut. They became the focus of the police investigation into the murder and were picked up by police and questioned separately. Following three days of interrogation Ochoa falsely confessed that he and Danziger committed the rape and murder. Ochoa ultimately pled guilty, taking full responsibility for the shooting, and testified against Danziger at a 1990 trial. Danziger maintained his innocence. He testified that he was with his girlfriend at the time of the murder, but prosecutors claimed that a pubic hair found at the scene belonged to him. Though the semen evidence could not be matched to Danziger, Ochoa could not be excluded. Eight years later, Achim Marino, who was serving three life sentences in a Texas prison, confessed to the crime. He sent letters with detailed knowledge of the crime to then-Governor Bush, the police, the newspaper, and the district attorney. His letters went unanswered for two years even though police found items he had described. After a letter from Marino was made public, Ochoa and Danziger were able to get DNA tests, which excluded them and incriminated Marino. In 2001, Danziger and Ochoa were officially exonerated. By then, Danziger had been attacked in prison by inmates, kicked in the head, and sustained serious brain damage.

Written statement by Richard Danzinger's sister and legal guardian, Barbara:

"On February 27th, 1991, Richard's worst fears came true. Another inmate beat the back of Richard's skull into his brain. For many weeks, our family believed he would die. During this time we watched Richard lie unconscious and handcuffed to his bed. Due to this injury, Richard now suffers from seizures, mental problems, and partial paralysis of the left side of his body. ... Now, at 32, released from prison, his care has been transferred from the prison system to family members. Richard still has someone making his appointments, taking him to the doctor, making sure he takes his medications, pays his bills. The only difference from being in jail is that now he has people who care about his well being. ... My question to you is where is the justice? If released from prison on parole, you have programs to assist you, find a job, help you find a place to live, groups to help you readjust. With the help of DNA, once you are released, you are on your own. No probation officer, no peer groups, no job assistance, no education, no history or references for job applications. In some cases, no family or friends left to help. Yet, society demands you participate and make something of yourself. ... So which is better: a place where you eat three meals a day, shower, sleep, make no decisions; or the unknown named freedom? Will Richard ever have freedom or has the justice system robbed him of that opportunity forever?"

Text and image excerpted from The Innocents by Taryn Simon. Copyright Umbrage Editions (2003)

 

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published may 1, 2003

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