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After 10 Years, a Taste of Freedom

Mario Rocha, whose conviction in a youth's murder was nullified, is starting a new life. Of his pending retrial, he says `the truth is on my side.'

August 26, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Mario Rocha spent his first night out of prison lying on a blanket on the roof of his cousin's El Sereno garage, reading by flashlight -- Luis Rodriguez's gang memoir "Always Running" and the writing handbook "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk and E.B. White.

Just a boy of 16 when he was locked up 10 years ago, Rocha, now 27, fell asleep savoring the starlit sky and awoke Friday to face the limelight.

He became a bit of a celebrity in prison, championed by supporters who believed he was wrongly convicted of murdering a 17-year-old Cathedral High School student based on flimsy eyewitness testimony. A California appeals court late last year overturned his conviction.

A documentary movie about his case is making the rounds of film festivals, and two dozen donors, including lawyers, entertainment industry executives and philanthropists, helped his family make bail of $1 million. A movie producer has offered him a place to stay in Century City and said he has arranged a job at Warner Bros.

Rocha still faces a retrial. In an interview Friday at the office of one of his lawyers, Stephen A. Meister, Rocha said he was a bit uneasy about the attention he has received. The mother of Martin Aceves, the victim in his case, remains convinced that he killed her son.

"I'm upset it got to this point where he was even released," Christine Aceves Hansbrough said in a telephone interview Friday. "At this point, I'm just hoping we're going to do the retrial so we can prove he's not as innocent as everybody believes."

Rocha said he knows she is resentful. "For years, my story has become the story, but I am not the victim," he said. "Martin Aceves is the true victim."

But Rocha says he did not kill Aceves. The two crossed paths the night of Feb. 16, 1996, at a Highland Park party celebrating the success of Cathedral High's basketball team.

A fight broke out, and witnesses said Aceves, a popular senior who was bound for San Diego State University, was shot as he tried to break up the melee. Rocha and two gang members were convicted in the case; Rocha was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison.

Sister Janet Harris, a nun who had taught Rocha writing in juvenile hall as he awaited his first trial, saw him as an example of the vagaries of California's juvenile justice system. The district attorney elected to charge him as an adult; had he been convicted on juvenile charges, he would be out for good by now.

Harris recruited lawyers from the powerhouse Latham and Watkins firm, who won a ruling from the California 2nd District Court of Appeal last December that Rocha did not get a fair trial because his attorney's performance was flawed. He is scheduled to appear in court Oct. 30 for a pretrial conference.

Rocha said he is not thinking about the possibility that he will be convicted again. "I walk with confidence because the truth is on my side. I do not think about the other scenario," he said.

He is concentrating on fitting into an adult world he has never known.

Before his conviction, Rocha had attended Franklin and Wilson high schools and a few continuation schools. He had not held a job for more than a few weeks, and never got a driver's license.

When Meister told him he could live in Century City, Rocha, who had never been there, asked if it was a safe neighborhood.

Rocha earned a high school equivalency diploma in juvenile hall and has inspired his supporters with his wide-ranging intellect. He said he does not consider his captivity lost time, and likens it instead to monastery life. "I read a lot of Buddhist literature ... you can be free where you are," he said.

Rocha is uncertain of longer-term career plans, but has written three books he hopes to have published, including a 60-page poem called "Free L.A."

He said he wasn't sure how he would react the first time he entered a crowded shopping center or restaurant. He would find out when he left Meister's office for lunch with another lawyer, Thomas Ian Graham, at Arnie Morton's steakhouse. He was also considering reading his poetry at a radio station Friday night.

There is much to think about in his reentry to society: pursuing a girl, deciding whether to live in Century City or stay with his family in El Sereno, and managing a job after work experience limited to eight years cleaning bathrooms for 11 cents an hour.

Rocha said there's no need to feel sorry for him. In addition to works by Che Guevara and Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton, Rocha read conservative talk radio host Larry Elder while he was in prison.

"By no means am I a 'victicrat,' " he said, using Elder's term for one who capitalizes on victim status.

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