Texas is preparing to execute Abel Ochoa on Thursday for fatally shooting his family members in their living room.
In 2002, Ochoa walked out of his Dallas bedroom, high on crack, and shot his 7-year-old and 9-month-old daughters, wife, father-in-law and two sisters-in-law, court records state. The only survivor was one of his wife’s sisters, who ran to a neighbor’s house after being shot.
Police arrested a cooperative Ochoa soon afterward, and he confessed to shooting his relatives. He told police he “couldn’t handle the stress anymore,” according to court rulings. Nine months later, a Dallas County jury convicted him and sentenced him to death for the murders of his wife and oldest daughter. Now 47, Ochoa has been on death row for nearly 17 years.
Ochoa’s recent appeals have focused on issues surrounding his upcoming execution, like paperwork errors with the death warrant and the prison system's initial refusal to let him record a mercy plea to the Texas parole board. Previously, his appellate attorneys fought for a new trial because they said no investigation into mitigating factors was conducted until just before the trial began. Mitigating evidence is often raised during the punishment trial to try to sway jurors to sentence a capital murder defendant to a life sentence instead of death. So far, Texas and federal courts have rejected the requests. Barring any court or gubernatorial intervention Thursday, Ochoa’s execution will proceed after 6 p.m. in Huntsville.
Ochoa and his wife, Cecilia, were married nearly nine years. About two years before the murders, he started smoking crack, he said at trial. Over time, his drug use escalated. He took money from his wife and took out small loans to buy drugs. Months before the shooting, he walked off the job he had for more than a decade, court records state.
Ochoa tried to quit smoking crack with his family’s help. Before the killings, he had not smoked for 10 days. But on an August Sunday, after his family attended church, he convinced his wife to let him buy a small amount to curb his physical cravings, according to court filings on his testimony. He bought $10 worth of crack and smoked it in the backyard while his family gathered inside. He then went into his bedroom and came out about 20 minutes later with the family’s gun.
“The gun was already loaded, and I walked into the living room where my family was,” he wrote in his police statement. “I started shooting while they were all sitting on the couch.”
At trial, Dallas County prosecutors argued Ochoa had never gotten over learning years earlier that his wife had a child before they were together and kept it secret from him. The sister who survived the shooting said Ochoa became meaner and more aggressive toward his wife afterward. On a phone call recorded shortly after he learned of the child, he is heard threatening to shoot his wife, according to court filings.
Ochoa testified at trial that he had moved on and did not hold a grudge against his wife. His attorneys said it was his drug use that prompted the slayings, hoping mitigating evidence of his addiction would sway the jury to opt for a life sentence instead of death.
A brain scan showed Ochoa had brain damage due to extensive drug use, a doctor testified. A psychiatrist testified that he was in a “cocaine-induced delirium” during the shooting, saying his brain damage and abstaining for 10 days would bring on a state similar to psychosis.
“Mr. Ochoa was intoxicated and in a delirium,” his attorneys wrote in a 2010 briefing. “Five people did not die because Cecilia had lied to Mr. Ochoa and he happened to find out about it five years prior to the murders.”
A psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution said the small amount Ochoa smoked was “quite unlikely” to have brought on delirium.
“I think it’s a matter of anger. I think he was extremely frustrated with his situation,” Richard Coons, the state’s forensic psychiatrist, testified.
In his most recent appeals, Ochoa's attorneys have said his execution should be stopped because a sheriff’s deputy failed to return to the district clerk a receipt of the execution warrant, which tells the prison system when to carry out an execution. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied the motion Monday. In federal court filings— now before the U.S. Supreme Court — Ochoa's attorney argued for a stay because the prison system at first didn’t allow him to be videotaped for his clemency petition, in which the parole board can recommend that the governor delay his death or change his sentence to life in prison.
"Mr. Ochoa presented a compelling case for commutation to a life sentence given his deep and sincere remorse for his crime, the positive impact he has had on guards and other inmates, his personal story of redemption, and his remarkable faith and relationship with God," his attorney, Jeremy Schepers, wrote to the U.S. Supreme Court in a filing Wednesday. "Given his unique story, Mr. Ochoa retained a professional videographer to conduct a filmed interview with Mr. Ochoa to present to the Clemency Board."
At the urging of a federal judge, the prison allowed the recording last month, according to Ochoa's filing. The state has argued (and the courts so far have largely agreed) that the issue is moot because of that. But Ochoa's attorneys said his rights were still violated because the prison interfered with his clemency process.
If the execution proceeds Thursday evening, Ochoa will be the second person executed in Texas in 2020 and the third in the nation. Seven more men are set to be executed in Texas through May.