Student on Trial for Changing Grades
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Original title: Former Laguna Creek Student Goes on Trial in Grade-Changing Case
He was granted his high school diploma and has completed his freshman year at Occidental College, but former Laguna Creek high school student Alex Ochoa is still being prosecuted on criminal charges that he changed dozens of grades through a high school computer.
Ochoa, 19, faces 98 felony counts. He is charged with five counts of burglary while the balance of the charges are computer fraud, one for each time a grade was allegedly changed.
"I don't know why they're still pressing this case," said defense attorney Hamilton Hintz.
In opening statements Hintz told a juvenile court judge that Ochoa has alibis for almost all five dates when he allegedly committed burglary by entering a classroom and accessing the school's computer system. Hintz said one weekend Ochoa can prove he was out of town and on at least two other days football coaches will testify Ochoa was at football practice when the burglaries occurred.
The grade-changing happened through computers at Laguna Creek High School's Associated Student Body classroom. School officials say that from the spring of 2004 into 2005 as many as 84 grades were changed for at least 38 students. Administrators and prosecutors believe Ochoa changed nine of his grades but also changed grades for the other students, some without their knowledge, to cover his tracks. But Hintz argued that virtually all 25 to 30 students in the Associated Student Body class had access to a classroom key and nearly all knew the login and password for class advisor Jeff Platt.
Hintz argued Ochoa had no need to change his grades because he had a legitimate 3.76 grade point average and from the beginning Ochoa has steadfastly denied being involved. In fact, Hintz told News10 that Ochoa has refused to negotiate any plea agreement because he insists he did nothing wrong.
Hintz said two other students suspected of being involved first denied knowing anything about it and then pointed the finger a Ochoa. They claimed Ochoa threatened them if they told then later recanted those statements. Later they repeated their claim that Ochoa threatened them.
Hintz said once school officials zeroed in on Ochoa, a football star, honor student and student body officer "they shut their eyes to anything else. It's a classic rush to judgment."
Prosecutors, however, say they're convinced they have the right suspect. "It's our position that any financial aid he received from college has been obtained with false information, his transcripts," said prosecutor Sue Wilson. "Occidental was always his first choice and his grades were not good enough to get in."
Before opening statements juvenile judge Richard Gilmore denied a motion to dismiss several of the counts, and prosecutors have refused to drop the case. "Cheating is rampant. It would send the absolute wrong message," said Wilson. "He plays football. He's obviously not a baseball player because he's never learned to step up to the plate and take responsibility for his actions."
The trial is expected to last several days. Three former students who will testify have been granted immunity from prosecution. Ochoa, who has no criminal history or record of discipline before this incident in his senior year faces a maximum potential sentence of incarceration in the California Youth Authority until he is 21. After he was suspended in May of 2005, administrators denied him the chance to participate in graduation ceremonies, but he was granted his high school diploma. A school district panel decided not to expel him.
This is the seventh case of students charged with fraud or computer hacking for changing grades in Sacramento County. The other six cases were settled with plea agreements. This is the first case that has gone to trial.
(This story was provided by News10 KXTV Sacramento.)