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What Mario Rocha’s Story Really Means

March 31st, 2009 by Celeste Fremon

mario-rocha.gif

(NOTE: FOR RECENT UPDATES on Mario’s life, click here.)

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I see that Mario’s Story, the documentary film,
about Mario Rocha’s struggle to have his wrongful conviction for murder overturned, has several more showings on Showtime this week and next.

I watched the movie a week ago
and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

The film is gripping, harrowing and, in its own way, inspiring; Mario’s courage and calm in the face of his ghastly circumstances is astonishing. Watching the film I got frightened all over again for his fragile bravery—even though I know him, so I know how his story turned out, and how well he’s doing now, that his life is good, that he is healing, that the nightmare is over.

For me the film was deeply disturbing for a complex set of reasons
—some having to do with Mario, some not.

But before I get to all that, at the risk of being repetitive, let me once again give you at least an outline of Mario’s story.

On February 16, 1996, sixteen-year-old Mario Rocha
went to a keg party in Highland Park where a bunch of high school kids were celebrating a win for Cathedral High School’s basketball team. Mario was invited to the party. He did not crash it. However, as is often true with these affairs, a bunch of other kids did.

Not surprisingly, there was drinking at the party.
Eventually a fist fight broke out between some of the Cathedral kids and the party crashers. An extremely well-liked 17-year-old college-bound honors student named Martin Aceves, tried to break up the fight, but matters escalated fast. Two kids had guns. Aceves was shot and killed. Another kid was shot in the hand.

A week later, police burst into Mario’s bedroom,
guns drawn, and arrested him. He was not accused of killing Aceves. But an eyewitness had said there was a third kid with a gun who fired it, hitting no one. The party-goer witness picked Mario out of a photo line-up as the third guy with a gun.

It would come to light later that there were other witnesses at the party who definitively placed Mario well away from the shooting. Yet when Mario’s case was tried in adult court, neither his attorney, nor the prosecution bothered to find and question those witnesses. Nor did they challenge the existing eyewitness’s fuzzy and contradictory recollections.

Police also found no physical evidence at the scene suggesting that there was really a third gun fired—no bullets, no casings. Plus, no one bothered to point out inconsistencies in the prosecution’s case, like the fact that the witness who fingered Mario had repeatedly described the alleged third gunman as holding the weapon in his left hand, while Mario is right-handed.

No one did any of that.

All in all, Mario’s attorney provided very little
in the way of defense. It didn’t matter that Mario had no previous record or gang affiliation. (His brother was an admitted gang member. He was not.). He was lumped in two other party goers—gang members who had been seen to flash weapons in the crowd.

The upshot was that the teenager with no previous record, was convicted of murder and attempted murder,
and sentenced to two life terms to be served in adult prison.


The bulk of the movie shows the efforts of a team of people who came to believe in Mario’s innocence. There was Sister Janet Harris,
the longtime Catholic chaplain of Eastlake Juvenile Hall, who was the first to start pouring over trial transcripts. Sister Janet then talked the very high-powered lawyers at the internationally known firm of Latham & Watkins into representing Mario pro bono, Eventually a dedicated investigator, Aldo Velasco, also joined in the quest for Mario’s freedom.

Yet, even with all this help, along with piles of new evidence, it was against fantastic odds, and after several legal rebuffs, that in December of 2005, the group managed to persuade a California appeals court to overturn Mario’s sentence on the grounds that he was inadequately represented.

Mario was released in the summer of 2006, and finally cleared of all charges in late October of last year. (The photo above is from the day the charges were dismissed.)

In between Mario Rocha spent ten and a half years locked up. In prison he was attacked twice with a shank, and stabbed multiple times. The second time was serious. He was lucky he didn’t die.

This brings me to my point: Although Mario is an incredibly bright and winning young man with no previous record, and even though there was plenty of evidence suggesting his innocence, and inconsistant evidence suggesting his guilt, and even though he had an extremely talented legal team—plus a feisty, takes-no-prisoners nun, for God’s sake—who were willing to move heaven and earth to have him released……it nearly didn’t happen.

The truth is, there are too many people serving time right now for whom it did not happen, and likely won’t. They have no feisty nuns or first rate legal teams.

Look, don’t get me wrong: most people serving time in California prisons are guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted. But some are not. I know some personally who are not. I don’t say this as a bleeding heart, or out of naivete. I am simply telling you the facts. You work long enough in and around LA’s poorer neighborhoods and you run across these cases.

When my friend David Winett, who is a former Chief Deputy Warden of one of California’s prisons, saw Mario’s story, he articulated what I was thinking. “There are a lot of Mario’s,” he said.

Right. And that, for me, was the most terrifying part of Mario’s Story. That’s the part I can’t shake.

Posted in crime and punishment, criminal justice | 17 Comments »

17 Responses

  1. Woody Says:

    Okay, so what changes to our justice system would you propose to reduce this type of misjustice?

    I’m disturbed about this and feel genuinely sorry for the young man. However, I can’t quickly think of what changes would overcome stupidity, incompetence, and laziness of some of the police and servants of the court. However, there can be changes to help police who are overly-pressured to makes arrests and lawyers given caseloads beyond their abilities. Unions don’t make it easier to deal with the police and the Bar Association may need to get tougher.

    Can you find the names of those who pushed and performed the investigation and of the defense so that some direct questions can be made to them and complaints possibly filed?

    If your buddy David Winett knows the names of “other Mario’s,” then have him list them and spread the word to concerned people to have a chance to right the wrongs.

    And, being concerned goes beyond complaining. It takes action, especially if there are others who are falesly imprisoned. Who’s going to step up for those who remain and need help?

  2. Randy Paul Says:

    Who’s going to step up for those who remain and need help?

    The Innocence Project.

  3. nora Says:

    i think if we stop giving points to de prosecutors to be judges everytime they got a case, maybe, and ona case the prosecutor tried to push mi sister to said something she did not see,because he want this men behind bard ,, he did no ttried to give justice ,even wen the men got not guilty , he get out of the court so angry telling mi sister anithing this man do will be your responsability, but she lways said i can nto said something idid not see never, i think the lawyers and prosecutors , they are the worst

  4. nobody Says:

    rumors going around you are hiding in washing d.c.?

  5. dot Says:

    After watching your story, it brought so many tears to my eyes! We need more people like the ones who worked your case. I just hope now you are enjoying every thing that comes to you in life!! Its great to hear stories like this one, and hopefully this will help open eyes to many more!

    Good Bless you Mario!

  6. Donna Cox Says:

    I have just watched the Showtime film of Mario’s case and I couldn’t watch until the end because I was so upset at the idea that he might not have won his case. I have six children who are from all all races that I have adopted and it terrifies me that even in 2009 we have such a long way to go to overcome racism in our legal system. I pray that more people will step up to the plate to fight the injustices that continue to be fought in the courts today. I also pray that Mario will live a long and peaceful life with his loving family. God does answer prayers!

  7. Californian Says:

    I just watched the film yesterday morning and this is precisely why I am against the death penalty. Thank God this man was not sentenced to death. Now what about that stupid stupid witness and others involved that took away ten + years of Mario’s life! I don’t even know where to begin. I read somewhere in research awhile ago that there is an innocent woman sitting on death row. Furthermore, in the state of Texas they were trying to pass through the legislation, if three people witness a murder, the suspect would be executed sooner then most on death row. In other words, there is no waiting the usual amount of time. I don’t know how true this is, or if it actually passed. I feel people should not be convicted on witness evidence alone, whether it is one or two or three. Why? Because they can make mistakes, or say things for personal gain or attention. When it comes to physical evidence , the court should take in to consideration comparative evidence. What do I mean by that. Well, aside from the fact that some police departments/detective’s have such a fine ability to frame subjects (when they are under pressure to find a “suspect”) evidence should be analyzed in a accredited lab of the defense attorney’s choice. Now I know this may seem far fetched, but if Mario’s story moved you or pis___ you off as did me, then we need to do some thing about it as voting citizens. How can we do that? By getting out there and getting signatures to get things on the ballot. If you have MONEY donate it to get these innocent people off death row or out of prison. Lawyers I’m sure are still doing what they can. Sorry to ramble on so much I’m just passionate about this subject. Peace out everyone, to Mario(you are a saint), and his family especially – that waiting must have been horrible.

  8. Anthony Says:

    Anthony Says:
    April 10th, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    After just having seen his documentary, I am touched by the perseverance and courage of not only Mario but all parties that worked to overturn his conviction. Just recently I was wrongfully arrested and sent to jail for merely defending myself, after being attacked, in my own home. At the time of my arrest, I was shocked and couldn’t believe that I was being arrested. However, it was a reality. According to the arresting officers because the other guy sustained more bruises than me, they had to consider him the victim regardless of the fact that I had injuries of my own, not to mention a bad bit that caused severe swelling. The other guy was never arrested. I had never been in trouble; worked 12 hour shifts; used to work as a mentor for trouble kids; and was usually with my son when I wasn’t working. However, none of those things mattered the moment the officers told me I was being arrested. When I read my charge and the police report, I was amazed at how much the events were exaggerated and how I was made to look like a criminal. I was held for 13 days before being let out on bail and not only had it robbed me of my freedom but it cost me a great job. I am currently fighting to rebuild my life because this ordeal has greatly disrupted life as I knew it prior to my arrest.

    So having gone through this myself, my heart goes out to all those that are wrongfully incarcerated because I feel if it happened to me (and only for 13 days), I know for a fact that it has has happen to many others.

  9. Maria Lerma Says:

    to whom it may concern my brother was given life ,for a murder he did not commit.please i ned help getting him out. there was no eviendence just because he was not there, they said he did it . please contact me 806-729-1002

  10. Joe C Says:

    Mario and god are the only ones who know the truth.I wish u the best and god bless

  11. Brad Says:

    I also watched Marios story and although it was inspiring it was also very one sided. Some people are piping up about the Innocence project and how it helps wrongly convicted people get out of prison. Here in Wisconsin our “Innocence Project” assisted in getting a man imprisoned for years. That man then went and raped, tortured, and killed a young women. My point is that there are many “Marios’s” but they are few and far between. Many prisoners use these bleeding heart organizations to there advantage. Remember that many people are sheep but there are wolves among us.

  12. trish Says:

    While watching the story I think what I was most struck by the fact that every time Mario seemed to come near release he was severely attacked. But even through all that he kept his head up and his spirits never dulled. I am sure in his heart he wanted to give up. But for his mother and family he did not. I understand that everyone in prison is “innocent” but I have a brother in prison who is guilty of the crime for which he has been convicted. Although I love him I believe that he should serve his sentence in prison and have to work to get out on parole. That is my personal opinion. This man however was innocent from the word go and everyone could see and Nobody except his family, the defense and the Nun (thank God) believed him, or wanted to stand up for him. Mario, I believe in you and I hope that you have a happy life and make great memories in the future.

  13. jim Says:

    i recently saw the documentary about what you went thru. im glad to hear that you got the justice you deserve and i am proud of you for keeping up the fight and being strong thru it all. with sincere respect and admiration i wish you all that you want from life. God bless you mario.

  14. leticia pina Says:

    what were your feeling when you kknew you were coming out of prison????
    what you did after u came out of prison what was the first thing you did????

  15. Linda Chum Says:

    I just finished watching your story on DVD that I picked up at the library today. At first I was shocked, then upset, I went through a whole range of emotions, but nothing compared to what you must have experienced. Nothings a waste and you life is a testimony that justice always prevails as long as you do not close that window for her to enter. Blessings Mario live life to the fullest!

  16. cac Says:

    When, I was 16 years old I was once wrongly accused by a few guys of making a two word comment. Based on this commend they wanted to hurt me. For years, I was scared and didn’t even boder to protect myself. I only limited myself to pray, pray and pray to the lord. I basically gave up, as I knew that even if you defende yourself, you will still be incarcerated. Why defending yourself, even in your home. (like Anthony)? I believe it is always best to welcome the death than to fight it. It is difficult to understand why he was severely attacked two times (his brother spoke about codes), and the waste years of his youth. I cannot imagine each time he is sleeping and must wake up from his nightmares. Must be very difficult for him to walk in the street, adjust to life, and believe all is going to be ok. I would never forget his many laughs in disbelieve throughout the story. Wow, this is a real life nightmare I wouldn’t wish anyone to endure.

    His sad life is an outstanding testimony that there is a God. This is a great story to share with our childrens.

    Dime con quien anda y te dire quien piensas que tu eres.

  17. eusebio Says:

    Mumia Abu-Jamal movie ended on my Netflix and yours was recommended and since you have a pretty nice smile on your face then I was convinced to watch it. First off, I empathize to your case for your humble servant was victimized in Platte County,WY 1998 for something not committed. I was a student of Charles Moose-a former Chief of Police of Portland,OR-after everyone in my repertoire was called and contacted for help and not one seemed to have belief on me. I then contacted him and wife because both taught me leadership in college. His wife immediately told me, we belief in you and we don’t think that you have transported with drugs for Scientologist never do anything illegal. Allow me to contact Jerry Springer-he is from Wyoming-and we will do whatever is in our power to help you. They sure did and I was released about 35 days later.
    However, Judge Snake of Platte County told me, most Mexicans coming through The State of Wyoming transport drugs… I admire you for your strength,fortitude,endurance and that of your family as well. You continue surviving,flourishing and prospering and that is one way to attack the suppression and the negative blaze.

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