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Mother of Slain Teen Speaks Out

She feels the man whose conviction in the case was voided is indeed the killer. The praise heaped on him by his supporters upsets her.

July 28, 2006|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Christine Aceves Hansbrough watched quietly for 10 years as the man she believes killed her son at a Highland Park party became famous.

Mario Rocha was found guilty of the Feb. 16, 1996, murder of Hansbrough's son, Martin Aceves, but the conviction was overturned, and Catholic and Hollywood figures have proclaimed his innocence.

Now, as a judge today considers releasing Rocha on bail, Hansbrough has decided to break her silence.

"All I want is another trial. If they prove he is innocent, fine," she said this week.

Aceves was the announcer for basketball games at the school he attended, Cathedral High near downtown Los Angeles. On that February night, he headed to a party at a Highland Park house to celebrate the team's success. A fight broke out. Witnesses said Aceves was trying to break up the melee when he was shot. Three shooters, including Rocha, were identified.

Rocha, 16 at the time of the murder, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 35 years to life in prison. Sister Janet Harris met Rocha in a juvenile hall writing class before his trial and, from the few details of the case she learned, concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict him. After his conviction, she enlisted lawyers from the Latham and Watkins law firm to take up his case.

The California 2nd District Court of Appeal eventually ruled that Rocha did not receive a fair trial because his attorney's investigation of the case and performance at trial had been flawed.

Rocha's lawyers have also argued that witnesses at the scene were unreliable because they were intoxicated and that other witnesses who could have cleared Rocha were never brought in to testify.

Rocha was the subject of a documentary that premiered recently at the Los Angeles Film Festival. His tale has been reported on the front page of this newspaper. A book on his life is in the works.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert L. Grace Jr. said the district attorney's office intends to retry him.

Hansbrough believes that Rocha is guilty. She is especially upset that his cause has been championed by many Catholics, including Harris. Her son received all his formal education at Catholic schools and loved them.

"It's so ironic to me that a Catholic nun is the one who has been helping him," Hansbrough said of the effort to free Rocha.

"They didn't approach me; I didn't hear anything from them," she said.

Harris said she approached Hansbrough and her family at courthouse hearings but "was rebuffed." She said she understands Hansbrough's desire for a retrial.

"I think if my child was killed, I would feel exactly the same way," she said.

But Harris thinks Rocha's case should be dropped because she believes there is insufficient evidence to try him.

Whenever Rocha is lauded for his talents -- his prison writings are read to adoring supporters at rallies for his release -- Hansbrough cringes.

"He probably is a bright young writer. Well, my son was bright too," she said.

Why, she wonders, does no one seem to care that her son never got to develop his talents? Aceves, 17, was a senior at Cathedral; he had been accepted at San Diego State and was intent on becoming a sportscaster.

The oldest of three children, he had been an inspiration to his family.

Carole Martinez, his aunt, marveled at how, in an age of micromanaging parents, he had directed himself through the college admissions process.

"Whatever it was, financial aid, admissions, he would bring the forms to his mom all filled out and just say, 'Here, Mom, sign the bottom,' " she said.

Prosecutors will argue today that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor should set a maximum bail of just a little more than $2 million. Rocha's lawyers are seeking a lesser amount.

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