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Backstory: From prison bars to bar exam

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Christopher Ochoa is late as he walks into the Starbucks on University Avenue here and sits down. He takes off his Yankees hat and apologizes. "I'm sorry about that," he says mildly. I assure him it's no problem, but he seems genuinely distraught. It's the kind of thing he's still getting used to: making appointments and keeping them.

"You learn patience in prison," Mr. Ochoa says. "You learn to live one day at a time. You have to. And I have to get out of the habit, because I miss appointments like this one, because I take one day at a time."

Ochoa is short and quiet and blends easily among the students and soccer moms of this university town. He is shy by nature, a trait that may have helped him survive the 12 years he spent in the Texas prison system for a crime he didn't commit. He kept his head down.

Now, however, Ochoa is holding his head high. He is one of 180 people in the US to be exonerated by DNA evidence – and one of the few to thrive: Last month he became only the second exoneree in US history to graduate from law school. As he now heads out to look for a job in a field – criminal justice – that tragically let him down, Ochoa isn't sure what kind of law he might practice. But he does know some of the values he'll bring to the profession.

"You have to have compassion for your client," says Ochoa. "It doesn't matter how much money he has, or whether he's rich or poor, because that's what makes us better lawyers. And compassion is what makes, in essence, justice."

***

Justice is something that Ochoa, a Hispanic, has learned about the hard way. He'd never been in trouble, when Ochoa and a friend, Richard Danziger, went to a Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas, one day in 1988. The manager of the restaurant had been recently raped and murdered. While there, the two men offered a toast to the woman, they said, to memorialize her. Both worked at a nearby Pizza Hut.

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