He didn’t do it.

That didn’t stop police from interrogating him for 12 hours, screaming questions, denying him a lawyer, holding a gun to his head, telling him he should fess up because otherwise he was going to “get the needle,” the death penalty, dead man walking, because, after all, he raped that girl at the Pizza Hut, he murdered that girl, this is how he did it, isn’t it? Isn’t it? ISN’T IT? If you sign this confession, it’ll be easier on you….

He didn’t do it. But that didn’t stop him from confessing. He was 22. He had never been charged with a crime. He was scared, exhausted, intimidated, without hope. He honestly believed the alternative was lethal injection — in Texas, a state where they are not slow to execute people.

He didn’t do it. But that didn’t stop the judge from sending him to prison, life sentence. Locked away in a closet-sized cell. In winter, he slept in a jacket to fight the cold. In summer, he slept on a wet floor to fight the heat. His friend who had been with him that night was sent to prison, too. A few years into his term, he was attacked by another inmate and left mentally disabled with head injuries. His friend, innocent, just like him, now permanently damaged.

Twelve years after the crime — 12 years! — the truth came out. Another convict, in jail for life, confessed to the murder of that girl in the Pizza Hut.

DNA testing was done. It confirmed the truth. It confirmed what Christopher Ochoa had been saying the night he was scooped out of his life by cops who wanted this case solved.

He didn’t do it.

Always adjusting to life

“Were there times you felt you’d die behind bars?” I asked Ochoa on his third day of freedom.

“There were,” he said. “You adjust. From the minute they take you in the bus and close the door and you’re in this cell, you start adjusting. Older inmates tell you how to protect yourself. They say be ready to fight. If you don’t fight, it’s worse. You adjust….

“Just like I’m adjusting to freedom now.”

How does anyone return to Ochoa what he has lost? He is 34 now. His 20s are gone. The years a man spends starting a career, putting away some money, dating, learning who he is. All passed. Whatever work he starts now, he’ll be old for. If he wants to marry and have kids, he’ll be old for that, too.

And these are just the small inconveniences. The nightmares — “I saw body bags being rolled down the hall” — those never go away.

And he didn’t do it.

Still full of compassion

We just swore in a president, George W. Bush, who was governor of Texas when Christopher Ochoa was rotting away. We are about to confirm Bush’s choice for attorney general, John Ashcroft, who believes so strongly in killing certain criminals he snuffed a black judge’s progress because he dared to question a death-penalty ruling.

Where is the same fervor for the police detective who so relentlessly terrorized Ochoa — who nearly stole his life — and is still on the force? Why did Bush’s office not act on confessional letters from the real killer, received from 1996 to 1998? Why did it take a group of University of Wisconsin law students to push for DNA testing that ultimately freed Ochoa?

And why is he not livid?

“Anger doesn’t solve anything,” Ochoa said. “As you get older, you start going to church, you learn to forgive, to channel your anger constructively.

“But the death penalty, I feel it should be abolished. We think it’s a deterrent. But it my case, it wasn’t used as a deterrent; it was used as a threat, as a weapon.”

Ochoa is home now. One of his first stops was a cemetery. His grandfather, who never stopped believing in his innocence, died while he was in prison. He never got to say good-bye.

Police have a brutal job. Obviously. Few criminals admit their crimes.

But confession and guilt are not always the same thing. And anyone who says
“There are no innocent men behind bars” has just learned otherwise. Christopher Ochoa has somehow, through the most unimaginable circumstances, learned compassion, wisdom, patience and forgiveness.

He’s not the one who needed the education.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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