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Justice is served, but it’s little and late

A funny thing happened on James Ochoa’s way to getting the shaft again.

He didn’t.

If you’ve lost track of Ochoa’s problems with the justice system, here’s a list of people who have done him wrong since May 2005: Buena Park police, the Orange County district attorney’s office, a trial judge, a deputy state attorney general, and a hearing officer for the state Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.

They all pitched in to ruin Ochoa’s life for a while, starting with his arrest on a carjacking charge that was later connected to another man.

But that was just the arrest. Then came the trial, based on eyewitness testimony but undercut by findings that had already established that DNA from the carjacker’s clothing didn’t match Ochoa’s. Then came the trial judge, who basically told Ochoa to plead guilty if he wanted a lighter sentence. Then came the deputy attorney general, who said the office wouldn’t oppose paying him for being wrongly convicted, but cited language in the law that might make Ochoa ineligible for such reparations. The state hearing officer, citing the attorney general’s findings, in February recommended against granting Ochoa $31,700 from the state compensation fund for the 10 months Ochoa spent in state prison.

This was after Ochoa had spent 17 months behind bars being tried and serving time for a crime everyone agrees he did not commit.

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So, when the three-member compensation board met this week in Sacramento to sign off on the hearing officer’s decision, Ochoa and his attorney Scott Borthwick decided that if they were going to get rejected again, they wanted the board to say it to their faces.

“I still had faith they were going to do the right thing,” Borthwick says, “but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too high, because I figured they’re going to rubber stamp the hearing officer’s decision.”

How could he not be ambivalent? He had a innocent client who had pleaded guilty because the carjack victims were convinced he was the guy; a client who was staring at 15 years to life in prison from a judge who said he’d throw the book at him. So Ochoa pleaded guilty and took a two-year sentence.

And that proved the kicker: Even after the truth finally came out, Ochoa lost his compensation request because the hearing officer ruled that his guilty plea contributed to his imprisonment, thereby disqualifying him from getting money from the state.

The biggest surprise might be that Ochoa didn’t lose his sanity and now works for a silk-screen company in Texas.

According to Borthwick, the board’s decision to reject the hearing officer’s recommendation was spearheaded by members John Chiang and Michael Ramos, the state controller and the San Bernardino County district attorney, respectively.

I tried to reach them Friday for the proverbial pat on the back, but couldn’t track them down. The third board member, Rosario Marin, secretary of the State and Consumer Services Agency, was characterized by Borthwick as originally being opposed to giving Ochoa the money; but ultimately, she voted with her two colleagues.

What’s always been troubling about Ochoa’s case -- more so than the recommendation to deny him compensation -- is how easily it happened.

Police had a notion that Ochoa, on parole from a drug case, might be the carjacker so they showed the two victims a photo of him. They then showed them photos of two other guys who looked nothing like their descriptions, likely bolstering their belief that Ochoa was the guy. They took the victims to Ochoa’s house, where he was standing outside, basically in custody. The victims reiterated their identification.

Those false identifications might not have done him in if the district attorney’s office hadn’t pushed the case when DNA evidence, which was available before the trial, should have given them pause.

The next thing Ochoa knows, he’s on trial, the first victim identifies him and the judge tells him he’ll give him the maximum sentence if he prolongs the trial.

A spokesman for the state compensation board said its decision this week proves that the system works. Well, I’ll grant that it did for a day, but remember that Ochoa would have had to finish out his sentence if police hadn’t eventually come upon the real carjacker, who was by then doing time in an L.A. County jail.

Miles Bristow, the board’s spokesman, said the members agreed that the circumstances of Ochoa’s guilty plea “were so influential that it couldn’t be found that he contributed to his conviction.” In addition, “The information in the record showed some pressure from the court,” Bristow said.

Marin concedes she was initially torn over Ochoa’s claim. “I read the entire claim, and my heart went out to Mr. Ochoa,” she says. “It was clear to me he didn’t commit the crime, but what was unclear was to what degree . . . he contributed to his conviction. I was heartbroken, in the sense I felt the right thing to do was give him his money. On the other hand, I felt the law wasn’t clear.”

But she was swayed after talking to attorneys and hearing the comments of Ramos, the San Bernardino district attorney, who expressed indignation at how the Ochoa case was handled.

After knocking the justice system in earlier columns for what happened to Ochoa, I’m happy to salute it for getting things right this time.

I asked Borthwick, who had urged Ochoa not to take the guilty plea at his trial, if his former client was happy with his $31,700 compensation for the 317 days he served in prison. “He’s happy he got the money,” Borthwick says, “but I wouldn’t trade 17 months in county jail and prison for that amount of money. A hundred dollars a day, that’s not even minimum wage if you’re there 24 hours a day.”

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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