Harris was stunned. After Rocha was sent to prison, she studied the 13-volume trial transcript, hounded the prosecutor, found new witnesses -- missed or ignored by Rocha's trial attorney -- and put together a booklet summarizing the case. She wrote and phoned lawyers, legislators, reporters -- anyone who might listen. For almost two years, no one did.
"Lawyers would commit, and then something would come up," she said.
A break came in late 1998, when Harris managed to win the attention of Belinda Smith Walker, a former corporate lawyer who mentored female juvenile offenders, and happened to be married to a then-partner at Latham and Watkins.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 28, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Cathedral High School -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about a man convicted of murdering a Cathedral High School student nine years ago said the school was in Monterey Hills. The school is near downtown Los Angeles, just north of Chinatown.
This enabled Harris to get her foot in the door at the 72-story downtown Library Tower that Latham calls home, to make a verbal pitch. As is her custom, the slender, soft-spoken nun -- a New York native and member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary -- arrived in lay dress.
She had been given no guarantees, but the first thing she did was thank attorney Bob Long for taking the case. "He hadn't even made the final commitment," recalled Harris, whose infectious energy belies her age.
Long said that although Latham had a strong reputation for pro bono work, it had limited experience in criminal defense. Undeterred, Harris recounted the case and described the young man she had met at juvenile hall.
"I did everything but get down on my knees," Harris recalled, adding: "I know I was at boiling point. It wasn't just about Mario. It was about so many young people ... and the laws becoming tougher and more mean-spirited."
Indeed, to Harris and Rocha's supporters, the treatment of juvenile offenders has been a backdrop to the case.
An initiative passed in 2000 by 62% of California voters gave district attorneys the power to determine whether juveniles accused of certain serious crimes should face adult punishment.
The most severe sentence that can be imposed in Juvenile Court is detention until age 25. Had Rocha not been tried as an adult, his supporters say, he might have been freed by now.
Last year, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office filed 178 juvenile cases in adult court, and 119 juveniles were transferred to adult court after judicial hearings, according to the agency's statistics.
A report published Oct. 12 by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found that 2,225 offenders are serving life without parole in U.S. prisons for crimes committed before they turned 18. For an estimated 59% of those inmates, it was their first conviction.
The U.S. is one of only a few countries that allow children to be imprisoned for life without parole. Elsewhere in the world, about 12 young offenders are currently serving such sentences, the study found.
The larger issue of juvenile justice was the subtext of Harris' hourlong presentation to Long. He agreed to have Latham attorneys review the court file.
It took the attorneys about six months to complete their initial investigation. The firm paid a private investigator to interview witnesses. In the process, he found new ones.
"We quickly came to the conclusion that this case was meritorious
In three habeas corpus petitions and during an eight-day evidentiary hearing, the lawyers argued that the defense attorney hired by Rocha's family -- Anthony Garcia -- had given a "substandard performance."
Among other things, the Latham lawyers found that Garcia had failed to call witnesses who could have provided exculpatory evidence. They argued that Garcia failed to adequately cross-examine witnesses who -- with uncertainty -- fingered Rocha as the shooter. And the attorney failed to protect Rocha against the accusation that he was a gang member, the Latham lawyers argued.
Garcia did not return several phone messages. But in a 2002 declaration to the court, Garcia said he could not remember why he failed to call witnesses found by the Latham lawyers. He added that he "unconditionally" believed that Rocha was innocent.
"If there is a question as to any decisions that I made, this Court of Appeal should provide that opportunity to this young man to show that he is innocent," Garcia said in that declaration.
One trial witness testified to seeing a shooter get down on one knee, put a gun in his left hand and shoot down the driveway, Long said.
Rocha is right-handed.
Latham attorney Thomas Ian Graham said another witness, who identified Rocha from a 16-photo lineup, admitted he had only caught a "glimpse" of the shooter. The lawyers said many of the witnesses had been drinking and smoking pot. Witnesses also disagreed over the number of shooters.
"The ID evidence was flawed," Long said.
Law enforcement officials dismiss such arguments and say they did not overlook potential evidence.
"He was convicted based on evidence presented in court and eyewitness testimony," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert L. Grace Jr., who prosecuted the case.