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Defense for Shooter Convicted in '96 Killing Was Inadequate, Jurists Told

October 27, 2005|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

In an impassioned plea for a new trial, an attorney argued Wednesday that a man who was convicted of murder as a teenager in effect "had no trial counsel," because the performance of his lawyer was so deficient.

"His incarceration is unjust and unlawful because he has never been tried fairly for his alleged crimes," said attorney Robert Long of Latham & Watkins, which represents Mario Rocha, 26.

The proceedings in the California 2nd District Court of Appeal was a milestone for Rocha, who has received the support of a Roman Catholic nun, a high-powered law firm and a documentary filmmaker.

Oral arguments in the petition for habeas corpus centered on the performance of former attorney Anthony Raul Garcia, who, Long said, had made key errors. Prosecutors, however, said Garcia made decisions that were guided by valid strategies.

"Some attorneys try with a soft touch, some with a harder touch," Deputy Atty. Gen. David Voet told the panel of three judges. Lawyers should be offered that latitude, he said.

The judges, are expected to issue a decision later. Garcia did not return a call seeking comment.

For Rocha's family and friends who packed the downtown Los Angeles courtroom, the proceeding was a victory in itself. "I've been waiting for this for so many years," said Rocha's mother, Virginia Rocha, after the arguments.

Sister Janet Harris, who led the effort to secure a new trial for Rocha, likened Long to Atticus Finch, the character played by Gregory Peck in the classic film "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Rocha was 16 when he was accused of fatally shooting Martin Aceves, 17, at a party in Highland Park on Feb. 16, 1996. Anthony John Moscato, then 20, was shot in a hand.

Aceves was an honors student at Cathedral High School in Monterey Hills.

Tried as an adult and in conjunction with two accused gang members, Rocha was sentenced to 29 years to life for attempted murder and 35 years to life for murder. Harris, a chaplain at the juvenile hall where Rocha was confined, set out to prove Rocha's innocence, working until others picked up the cause.

Long cited what he called numerous problems with the defense offered by Garcia, whom the family had hired. About 50 people had attended the party, but Garcia failed to interview a sufficient number of guests, some of whom could have refuted one witness who claimed to have seen Rocha fire a gun, Long said. That witness had said the shooter held the gun in his left hand.

"Mr. Garcia never bothered to ask his client if he was left-handed or right-handed," Long said. Rocha is right-handed.

Garcia also did not push to have his client tried separately from two gang members, Long said. No evidence pointed to Rocha as a gang member, Long said.

The issue of which hand the shooter used "seems like smoke and mirrors," Voet said. "Whatever happens, two hands were used to hold the gun. I don't see that being evidence warranting a new trial. It just doesn't add up."

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