The small single in Mitchell Hall, with its spare white walls and utilitarian furniture, reminded him uncomfortably of another small, solitary room on the other side of the country, in another world altogether.
The difference was that he came to this room, and to GW, by the freedom of choice. That other room was in the Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County, Calif. Mario Rocha spent 10 years there, imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.
Now, he’s a 28-year-old sophomore political communication major, a free man with an award-winning documentary about him under his belt.
Rocha was 16 years old when he went to the party that would change his life. Arriving with two friends, Rocha says the party was like any other mid-’90s house party, but Rocha, whose older brother had joined a local gang, recognized some gang members among a group of party crashers. Then, a dangerous brawl started right in front of Rocha.
“I heard a gun shot and I half ran, half crawled to hide,” he says. “I heard six more shots fired in succession and the last thing I remember is flashes. The noise settled and people started coming out of the bushes where they were hiding. My friend and I drove home after that.”
Instead of just a crazy party experience to brag to his friends about, a week later in February 1996, Los Angeles Police Officers knocked on the door of the apartment he shared with his family in East Los Angeles. He was arrested for the murder of Martin Aceves, a 17-year-old honor student who tried to break up the fight at the party.
“I just remember thinking, ‘What the fuck is happening?'” he says. “They were talking about murder and I couldn’t link anything together.”
Rocha was informed that two people, who he had never met, had identified him as the shooter from photos. He was convicted of murder as an adult and sentenced to 35 years in prison.
“I was no longer in the U.S.A.,” Rocha says about his time in prison. “The law is no longer the law.”
Rocha says that he does not hold a grudge against the people whose testimony put him in jail. In fact, Rocha says, the key to maintaining his sanity during his imprisonment was just to avoid dwelling on his case and to focus on educating himself and others.
“I became one of the few people there who was proactive, trying to educate and increase literacy. I helped [the other prisoners] write letters to their girlfriends, families, attorneys,” Rocha says. “Some of those people who society sees as stone-cold killers facilitated my intellectual growth.”
The chaplain of the juvenile hall Rocha was first imprisoned in, Sister Janet Harris, never lost her faith in his innocence, Rocha says. She pursued any lawyer who would take Mario’s case, eventually encountering attorneys at the firm Latham & Watkins in Los Angeles where then-partner Bob Long took the case in 1999.
It was a long shot but Long says one option remained: the writ of habeas corpus, a legal action through which a person can seek relief from unlawful imprisonment.
“In his case, the writ says that the first conviction is improper because he was denied a fair trial. Mario was denied the right to effective counsel,” Long said.
Long and the Latham & Watkins firm eventually dedicated more than 6,500 hours to the case, pro-bono. Their involvement was mainly due to the insistence of Sister Harris, who could not be reached for comment on this story.
Long said Rocha’s original defense attorney had never tried a murder case before and failed to obtain any witnesses to counter the prosecution’s claims. Not a shred of physical evidence tied Rocha to the crime, but Rocha says he believes his brother’s gang affiliations, and the fact that he was tried alongside two known gang members, influenced the outcome.
Apart from Sister Harris, his family and his attorneys, other supporters rallied to Rocha’s side, particularly after an award-winning documentary, “Mario’s Story,” unflinchingly portrayed his legal troubles and his time in prison.
The crew filmed Rocha for seven years, following his legal team and had rare filming access within the prison itself. The filmmakers, Susan Koch and Jeff Werner, are currently on location filming in Africa, and were unable to answer requests for comment.
The film was the Audience Award Winner at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival, and was the official selection or finalist at eight other major film festivals.
Eventually, the Supreme Court of California affirmed an earlier ruling by the Court of Appeals, which said that Rocha didn’t receive a fair trial. The State of California could either retry or drop the case. They decided to drop it after they were unable to locate the original witnesses.
Rocha only discovered he was free after seeing Sister Harris on TV in prison.
“I see Sister (Harris) on ABC World News, and she’s saying how the Supreme Court has affirmed the decision and we’ve won. Everyone in the prison block started yelling my name and celebrating,” he says.
The decision to attend GW came after Rocha came to D.C. to speak at the District’s famous Sidwell Friends School in 2007.
Fred Siegel, the dean of freshmen, said in an e-mail that he heard of Rocha’s interest in GW after the head of Sidwell alerted Siegel to the potential student.
“I met with everybody at GW,” Rocha says. “GW was rolling out the red carpet for me and I knew this was an opportunity that comes once in a while.”
For Rocha, starting GW was the end of an era and the beginning of his new life. In a blog, he wrote this passage:
“On August 24, 2006, the doors of the [jail] closed behind me. On January 11, 2008, the doors of my college dorm closed behind me. The next day I would start classes. I was 28, a freshman, free, and alone with memories I can never erase.”