Crime and Punishment Criminal Justice Gangs Writers and Writing

Mario’s Story: Freedom Long-Delayed Finally Arrives – UPDATED

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Today the murder case against 29-year-old Mario Rocha
will finally be dismissed. For the first time in twelve and a half years, Mario will be really and truly, no kidding —- free.

The story that ends today began on the night of February 16, 1996, when Mario Rocha was sixteen-years-old and attended a keg party in Highland Park where a bunch of high school kids were celebrating a win for Cathedral High School’s basketball team.

There was drinking at the party, and eventually a fist fight broke out. An extremely well-liked 17-year-old 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, yelling: “Don’t move! Hands up! Get down!”

Mario Rocha was tried as an adult and, although the case against him rested on the word of one eyewitness, he was defended by an attorney who spent little time on his case, and failed to call other witnesses who had exculpatory evidence. By the trial’s end, although Mario had no previous record or gang affiliation, he was convicted of murder and attempted murder, together with two other party goers—gang members who had been seen to flash weapons in the crowd.

Unlike most young men in such a position, Mario turned out to be lucky. When he was in Eastlake Juvenile Hall awaiting trial, he participated in a new writing program called “Inside Out,” that had been set up by juvenal hall chaplain, Sister Janet Harris. Although Mario had not been an underachiever during his time in high school, he was clearly very bright, with an intellectual bent and a real talent for writing—all of which the writing class at juvie seemed to bring out in him.

After reading some of his writing, Sister Janet became interested in Mario’s personal story. Although she meets kids on a regular basis who swear they are innocent, the more she looked into Mario’s case, the more convinced she became that Mario was the real deal. She couldn’t imagine he would be convicted. When he was, she said she was too stunned to cry.

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(Read the rest after the jump)



“With Mario it was so egregious,”
she told ABC News much later, “so horrible that I said to myself whether I win or lose, I am going to fight for justice,” Sister Harris said. “His life was stolen by a system that’s flawed. A system where we need to look out and say: Have we lost our moral compass?”

A slender woman in her 70’s with enough nervous energy to light several medium-sized cities, Sister Janet began working on Mario’s case on her own. She reviewed thousands of pages of trial transcript, and tracked down new witnesses. Armed with what she’d found, Sister Janet managed to interest others in Mario’s case, including the high-powered LA legal firm of Latham & Watkins, whose lawyers agreed to take the case pro bono after Mario passed a polygraph, and a review of case documents, plus Janet’s personal discoveries, indicated that his original attorney did not pursue evidence that indicated Mario was innocent. (This LA Times story has more about Sister Janet’s quest.)

Even with hot shot attorneys, a habeas appeal is the longest of long shots. Yet, Mario had been convicted primarily on the say-so of one witness and no physical evidence, whereas others at the party said Mario was nowhere near the shooting.

While the attorneys worked on the case, two award-winning documentary film makers, Jeff Werner and Susan Koch, also became convinced of his innocence. The film that resulted, Mario’s Story, gathered accolades when it made the rounds of film festivals. But for years, Mario’s legal situation failed to improve.

Finally in December of 2005, the nearly-impossible happened: a California appeals court overturned his sentence on the grounds that he was inadequately represented. The district attorney refiled right away, yet didn’t make any immediate moves toward trial.

In the summer of 2006, after 10 and a half years behind bars— Mario was released.

(I met and got to know Mario through a PEN USA writing fellowship he was awarded not too long after his release.)

Yet, the pending charges still dangled over his head as a threat —like a legal guillotine.

While Mario got a job at USC, worked on his writing, and engaged in loads of community activism, he couldn’t apply to college, or make real plans for the future.

It was “kind of a staring contest,” said Mario’s lead attorney Bob Long, of the firm’s battle with the DA’s office over the ever-hovering charges.

Finally, miraculously, even that threat has come to an end. The case will be dismissed this morning in LA County Superior Court, Department 107, Judge Michael Pastor presiding

Justice delayed…..is still justice.

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But, like I said, for all he’s been through, Mario is lucky.
All of us who work around juvenile justice issues can cite other awful cases where luck didn’t break the same way. (I just heard about a new ghastly case over the weekend. It involves a fourteen-year-old and the LA Times will have a story about it soon. I’ll link to it when they do.)

“Mario is the tip of the iceberg. ” said Sister Janet when ABC News gave her it’s Person of the Week award for her work on the case. “There are hundreds of Marios out there. But he is the lens through which we should see the lives of young people who didn’t get a prestigious law firm to represent them. They’re children, and we are responsible as Americans for our children. They’re not disposable.”

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UPDATE: Today in the courtroom, according to LA Times reporter, Jack Leonard, who attended the proceedings, Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace said that the DA’s office was not persuing the case because they had lost contact with some of the witnesses they needed.

But, one of Mario’s attorneys, Michael Adelson, refused to let it go at that, and told the judge that several witnesses at the party have repeatedly maintained that Mario had nothing to do with the shooting.

“Before you is someone who many, many … believe is factually innocent,” he said.

Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor, got it. As he dismissed the charges, he commended Mario for staying out of trouble and inspiring unwavering faith among supporters who regularly filled his courtroom.

“There are very few of us who can command that level of respect and love,” Pastor told Rocha. “I don’t have any doubt … that you will go on to serve your friends and community in the future.”

Me neither. No doubt at all.

22 Comments

  • A few glaring things jumped out at me while reading this story.
    People that live in working class areas like Highland Park often get profiled and sometimes get put on the “Cal Gangs” list mistakenly. This can have an adverse effect on their lives from then on.
    How can an attorney representing a young kid getting framed just half ass a case and simply walk away while the 16 year old gets years in prison? The P”’k ought to be in jail himself.

    How many talented youngsters never get the chance to shine and develop their God given skills that would benefit themselves and our society in untold ways?
    Even many third world countries have programs that locate and develop talent in poor kids who otherwise would never blossom.
    Finally God Bless the Sister Janet’s of the world who don’t or can’t sit still while these horrible injustices take place.
    Good story Celeste.

  • I would feel better about reversals of jury verdicts if the appeals process weren’t strung out so long so as to make testimony and evidence more stale and less reliable. But, if he really is innocent, I’m glad that he’s out.

    Now, who did commit the murder and where is justice for that kid’s family? How do they feel about this?

    BTW, I am never impressed when someone wins ABC’s “person of the week.” It’s always some liberal and not someone like a businessman who gave people jobs.

  • Woody, there were two other people convicted of the murder. Both had, according to witnesses, flashed weapons at the party. But I’ve not examined the thousands of pages of paperwork so I’m only repeating what I have been told by others, Sister Janet included, who have examined his case very thoroughly. The victim’s family feels that all three should be locked up, and is not happy with Mario’s release.

    One thing I can say for sure, though, from my own experience, is that Mario is a talented, kind, big-hearted, intelligent young man who is determined, not just to lead a legal life, but to be someone who genuinely contributes to this world. In the 2 years he’s been out, he’s walked that talk very rigorously, helping out at a charter elementary school, working in behalf of others who were not, legally, as fortunate has he…..and so on—addition to paying his bills, becoming an everyday taxpayer, and working to become a good writer.

    Other than his….um….liberal leanings, I think you’d like him a lot.

  • “There was a young fellow named Cager,
    Who, as a result of a Wager-
    Consented to fart
    The entire oboe part
    Of Mozart’s Quintet in F Major.”

    Hola Woody!

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  • Mario’s freedom is long overdue and well-deserved. There are far too many cases of injustice taking place across America with impunity. It is unconscionable that we incarcerate young Latino men at such young ages and condemn them to die in prison for crimes they did not commit.

    This case was in many ways like that of my son, Efrén Paredes, Jr., who has served nearly 20 years in prison for a crime he also did not commit. He was 15-years-old at the time and is now age 35.

    Mario’s wrongful conviction occurred in California. Efrén’s wrongful conviction occurred in Michigan. Though miles apart the conduct of police and prosecutors was unlawful in both cases as if one and the same.

    Bring attention to these cases and raise awareness about them so we can prevent future recurrences. Children and families should not be made to suffer for decades because of aggressive police and prosecutors thirsting for convictions at any cost.

    To learn more about Efrén’s case and how you can contribute to our campaign to free him, please visit http://Free-Efren.blogspot.com and http://www.4Efren.com.

    Velia Koppenhoefer
    Mother of Efrén Paredes, Jr.

  • yoooo wat up mario well i stay at high land park i foolow ur story i even say it on tv yah i might be 18 but wow that really has tuched me well hope u doin gud pa n u are a true hero in many ways u stud up for ur right n todo so ur my hero

  • this is my first time reading about this story on this site, and all I can say is that I hope he was innocent.
    Was he not guilty? Yes, the evidence as stated doesn’t substantiate a guilty finding. But innocent? OJ was found not guilty, was he innocent?
    The point is, the evidence he did it was an eye witness. The evidence he didn’t was an eyewitness.
    I just hope he’s innocent and not just not guilty.

  • At 16 years of age I was sentenced to 30 years in prison. My one comfort I had in there if you want to call it a comfort is that I did commit my crime.I knew I wasn’t innocent.I myself did 16 years straight.I only met 3 men in there that proclaimed there innocence. Mario’s character is truly above any normal human beings because he maintained his dignity inspite of the injustices he suffered from the courts as well as the two brutal stabbings he endured.He maintained it with genuine humility and the love of his family and the love of the LORD in his heart. God does create miracles and Mario is a miracle himself.

  • I really agree that the poorer community’s need more positive role models. The documentary of Mario Rocha was really inspirational god bless him and his family. San Jose CA

  • we do live in the greatest country in the world but we still have a long way to go. in War the poor go, rich run our government, big buiness, same with our justice system, clearly Mario should never had gone to prison.

  • I just had to comment and say how absolutely thrilled I am that Mario is COMPLETELY FREE now! I just watched “Mario’s Story” on Netflix and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time — and praying the entire time haha! When the documentary was over, I jumped on the computer to try and find an update and like I said, am just over-joyed after reading here, that Mario can enjoy the rest of his life in true freedom, surrounded by the enormous love of his friends and beautiful family!

  • WOW…. IM SOOO HAPPY FOR THE ROCHA FAMILY,,, MY HUSBAND WORKS FOR THE PRISON SYSTEM AND HE TELLS ME THAT THERES ALOT OF INNOCENT PEOPLE IN THERE WHICH IS SAD… I PRAYED FOR ALL THOSE INNOCENT PEOPLE AND NOW THAT I HAVE A FAMILY MEMBER IN PRISON WRONGFULLY ACCUSED I CAN SOO RELATE WHAT THE ROCHA FAMILY WAS GOING THROUGH I CRY EVERY DAY I PRAY AND I WISH THAT I TOO WILL BE EXCITED AND HAPPY THAT MY FAMILY MEMBER WILL BE SAFE AND HOME..I JUST WISH THIS WAS ALL A BAD DREAM THAT ONE DAY I WILL WAKE UP BUT NO ITS NOT A DREAM :0( WE HAVE A FABULUOUS ATTORNEY AND I KNOW HE IS GOING TO COME HOME SOON,…MY MOTHER CRIES ALL THE TIME AND WISHES THAT HE WOULD BE HOME AND SAFE AND THAT ALL OF THIS WAS BEHIND US BUT WERE JUST AT THE BEGINING WE HAVE A LONG ROAD AHEAD OF US, IM SOO HAPPY THAT MARIO ROCHA IS SAFE AND HOME AND WITH HIS LOVING FAMILY PLEASE KEEP OUR FAMILY IN UR PRAYERS… I KNOW WITH GODS HELP EVERYTHING WILL BE FINE…

  • I don’t totally understand this myself, but, after meeting him, it honestly does not matter to me if he did kill someone as a totally immature teeenager or not. He has matured, seasoned, developed, and proven to be such an effective human that, even if he did demonstrate, like we all did, teenage stupidity; it is in the country’s best interest(and beyond) to provide another chance when they demonstrate such strong evidence to contribute to society.

  • WEll this movie caught my attention, it was so heartfelting.
    I dont understand how they kept u there for so long with no evidence and just by hearsay??? But i’m with you god puts you in situations that we may not like but we find our destiny to life. I’m glad you did.
    God Bless You Mijo!
    QUE VIVAN LOS ROCHAs!!
    love how you are so positive even wit the negative obstacles that came ur way.
    U made me look at certain things in life different. And i hope u make a documantry of how everything has fall in place. 😉

  • Hi I am trying to get justuce for my nephew who is been charge for murder and we hired two attorneys the first one is Paul Supple,esq. which we paid him almost $10,000 dollars and did not for three months he couldnt get the police report one day I spoke with his secretary and she told me that we need it to get another attorney for my nephew that Mr. Supple was not not doing anything for him and that he was just taking our money, the 2nd one it shows that he is trying but not trying hard enough and the only time he speaks with us is when we need to give him a payment. My nephew was arrested on 04/24/2012 the judge is very nice but he’s pushing for the case to be close we are trying to get a new attorney for my nephew but don’t know what to do.we own money to a lot of people , we are trying to sell a property that we have in Guatemala to pay for the new attorneys fees, we know that my nephew is innocent the rampart division that arrested his is corrupted that on the police report they type a lot of things that are not true . Please help me we are in need of someone that is an honest person n willing to help people like us at this time his father is unemployed. I been trying to see if I can get the information for the attorneys and the priest and the sister that help Mr. Mario Rocha with his case because my nephew’s case is very similar at Mr. rocha we just need someone to help us please call me if u can @ 323)695-8223

  • This story touched my heart and being from Highland Park, it made me fill like it was my family going through it. We all know that the system doesn’t behave the same for us as it does for the wealthy, but what bothers me the most is the lawyer Garcia who would willing betray his own. My brother went through something less similar, and thank the Universe, we knew people who knew the judge and the judge did not believe he was guilty and although he was found guilty, only gave him one year. There are just to many of our people in prisons now because of the private business deals that are being put in place and the indigenous have become the new slaves of a corrupt system. My only hope is that our people would come together and fight those who consistently bring us down. We now know so much more than we did many years ago about the working of those who do this and when we as a community decide to come together and put a stop to this, then we have not only conquered them, put ourselves in that we know we are as powerful as they are. I look forward to reading some more stories Mario and maybe one day another movie of your work will be made. I truly believe that the reason you are free, is because you never stopped believing in yourself and that is how free men think. My intentions for you Mario as well as everyone, is to find ourselves within and then our community will come together. Peace and light.

  • I watched the documentary on Mario last night and was so glad to hear he is free. His spirit to life was very touching and I wish him get success.

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