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A college freshman with a major difference

Susan Notes:

This is an outrage both because of the original conviction and then the inertia of conviction, keeping someone locked up even when everybody knows he's innocent. But it's also good news that because of a teacher, Sister Janet Harris, a nun of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one young man gets a chance to change his life. After spending 10 years behind bars in California, GWU student takes on a more hopeful but still formidable challenge.

By Daniel De Vise

The spartan dorm room where Mario Rocha spent his first semester at George Washington University felt a little like solitary confinement.

He should know. He once spent a summer in solitary confinement.

In some ways, Rocha is a typical student at GWU, where he enrolled in January as a freshman. He has a gift for writing, a new voter registration card and not much experience behind the wheel of an automobile.

But there is one difference. Rocha spent 10 years in juvenile detention and prison after being arrested and then convicted of first-degree murder.

Rocha was incarcerated at 16 for the murder of Martin Aceves, 17, who died in an exchange of gunfire at a Los Angeles house party. Four years ago, an appeals court found that Rocha had been wrongly convicted.

He is an innocent man who survived two prison stabbings, endured dispiriting courtroom defeats and prevailed against overwhelming odds.

Can he survive four years at GWU?

Rocha is on scholarship at one of the most selective U.S. colleges. He is 30, a decade older than most of his classmates. He recently switched to a computer from the manual typewriter he was allowed in prison.

He entered GWU to continue an education that began, for all practical purposes, in juvenile hall, as he awaited trial. He has had little formal education since junior high school and is largely self-taught.

"I'm taking it one semester at a time. That's the only way I can approach this," said Rocha, who moved off campus and lives with roommates in a house in Columbia Heights, three miles from his former, single, dorm room in Foggy Bottom.

He is taking courses in physical geography, women's studies, weight training and the media, along with Introduction to Criminal Justice, a subject to which he presumably needs no introduction.

One night in 1996, Rocha, his brother and some friends were chased from a keg party by the sound of gunfire, not a particularly unusual occurrence in the L.A. neighborhood of Highland Park.

A few days later, police crashed through the door of the Rocha home and arrested Mario. The victim, Aceves, a popular student about to go to college, had been killed as he tried to break up a fight.

Rocha knew he was innocent. He assumed that would be enough.

"I honestly thought, maybe naively, that I was going to get released on my first court date," he said.

At trial, prosecutors inaccurately portrayed Rocha as a gang member, along with his co-defendants, two gang members in their 20s, Rocha's attorneys say. An eyewitness identified him as one of the shooters.

Tried as an adult, he drew a sentence of 35 years to life. At his sentencing, Rocha thought to himself, "Today is my funeral."

Before incarceration, Rocha did not seem destined for a scholarly life. His parents separated when he was 13; his mother worked as a school custodian. He attended a succession of high schools and then a vocational school, where he learned to drive a forklift.
A life's purpose

But inside Central Juvenile Hall, Rocha found a craft that would sustain him through years of confinement and a voice that would inspire others to fight for his release. He was picked to participate in an inmate writing program.

On Dec. 13, 1997, he wrote this:

"I may not be free to do many things but nothing can stop me from having these dreams:

Dreams of going to college and obtaining an education that will help me achieve my aspirations."

His words caught the eye of Sister Janet Harris, a nun of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had started the writing program. "I began to watch Mario, and he had none of the body language of a gang member," Harris recalled.

Rocha had no gang tattoos. He feigned enthusiasm for strutting around the courtyard with the rest of the Chicano prisoners, time he might have better spent writing plays. A photograph from that era shows Mario in a crowd of nine boys in orange detention jumpsuits. He is the one wearing black-rimmed glasses.

Shocked at Rocha's conviction, Harris assembled a packet of his creative writing and a summary of the case and began shopping it around among prominent L.A. lawyers. She searched for nearly two years.

Harris eventually persuaded Latham & Watkins, an A-list firm, to handle the appeal pro bono. The senior partner succumbed, she said, to "good old Catholic guilt."

Prosecutors argued that the case against Rocha had been as strong as the case against his co-defendants, and strong enough to win a jury conviction.

The lawyers argued that he was a victim of bad lawyering. Rocha's trial attorney, hired by his family, had failed to object when prosecutors called Rocha a gang member. When a witness described the shooter firing with his left hand, the lawyer hadn't mentioned that Rocha was right-handed. The Latham lawyers found a witness, a party hostess, to discredit the man who had identified Rocha as the shooter, testifying that the witness was not even standing near the fight.

Mario Rocha was becoming a cause. Susan Koch, a documentary filmmaker from Cabin John, was in California working on a documentary about the juvenile justice system when she heard about the case and decided to make a film about Rocha.

"Everyone knew he was innocent. That was the amazing thing," she said. "Guards at the prison. Everyone."

But Rocha's attorneys spent years fighting against "the inertia of a conviction," said Ian Graham, a lawyer who worked on the appeal. A judge took 1 1/2 years before denying the first petition to release him. The attorneys had failed to prove Rocha's defense was so deficient at trial as to change its outcome.

A state appeals court disagreed and ordered that a hearing be held to consider the new evidence. The Latham lawyers argued their case for 10 days in fall 2003. Ten months later, a judge again ruled against Rocha.

A scene from Mario's Story, an award-winning documentary released in 2006 by Koch and co-director Jeff Werner, shows the Latham lawyers calling Rocha on speakerphone to break the news. They are prepared to console him. Instead, he consoles them.

Inside Cell 211 at Calipatria State Prison, Rocha had resolved to make the best of his time. He wrote poetry, typed essays, filled journals and read liberation theology. He awakened daily at 4:30 a.m. and spent an hour working out, visualizing an alternative future. He would tell himself, "This is the way I want my life to unfold," he recalled.

"And I would see myself going to court, and I would see myself getting released."

The lawyers appealed again. The state appeals court accepted the case, and set oral arguments for October 2005.

A ruling came down three days after Christmas. The three-judge panel agreed that Rocha's trial attorney had failed him. "When trial counsel's failure to investigate is this comprehensive, it is impossible to have any degree of confidence that petitioner received a fair trial," the opinion stated.

Free at last

But Rocha didn't walk out of prison for eight more months, until after prosecutors lost an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Recalling that first day of freedom in August 2006, he said: "They handed me a cellphone, and it felt so small. I handed it back to them. I said, 'I'm not ready for this.' " He slept that night on the roof of his cousin's garage, reacquainting himself with the stars.

As a result of his minor celebrity, Rocha found himself adopted by influential people. He stayed for a time with a movie producer in Century City before rejoining his family. He traveled to the District in 2007 to speak to students at Sidwell Friends School, where Koch was a parent and Graham an alumnus. Bruce Stewart, the now-retired headmaster, recalled that the follow-up meeting with parents that evening was "the best-attended parent function" of his tenure at the school.

After GWU offered a scholarship, Stewart persuaded a reluctant Rocha to accept it.

"I told him I hoped someday he'd be in the halls of Congress. I think he has that kind of potential," Stewart said.

But first, Rocha has to get through GWU.

He struggled at first with such mundane tasks as picking classes, signs of a 13-year lapse in full-time education. He had trouble keeping up with a course syllabus, and his initial papers lacked some of the stylistic conventions of college essays.

"It is quite a shift going from writing anything you want to write," said Robin Marcus, one of Rocha's instructors.

Rocha is juggling twin identities as student and social activist. One night last week, a group of Native American students at the GWU law school hosted him at a screening of "Mario's Story." He spent the next day at a news conference and march for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black journalist on death row.

But the schedule seems to suit him. He is making up for lost time.

"A lot of these kids have not found a purpose, have not found a discipline," he said. "I have an advantage in that I know what I want to do with my life."

— Daniel De Vise
Washington Post



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