After prison, GWU student pursues second chance

Mario Rocha on the campus of George Washington University.
Mario Rocha on the campus of George Washington University. (Photo By Chris Gregory/the Gw Hatchet - GW Hatchet)
By Daniel De Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

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.

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