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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)

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.

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