Los Angeles County prosecutors announced Tuesday that they would not retry the case of a 29-year-old man who has long insisted he was wrongfully convicted of a 1996 murder in Highland Park.
The decision marks the end of a 12-year legal odyssey for Mario Rocha and his supporters, who include a Catholic nun and a team of high-powered attorneys from a downtown law firm who worked on the case for free.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace told a Superior Court judge that prosecutors were unable to locate some of the witnesses who originally testified against Rocha. As a result, he said, they could not move forward with the case.
One of Rocha's defense lawyers told the judge that several witnesses at the party where the killing took place saw Rocha run for cover when shots were fired and say he had nothing to do with the shooting.
"Before you is someone who many, many . . . believe is factually innocent," said attorney Michael Adelson.
Rocha, then 16, was accused of opening fire at the party where a high school student was killed and another man injured. Rocha was tried as an adult and sentenced to 35 years to life in prison. Two others were also convicted.
Rocha was incarcerated for 10 years, during which he said he was stabbed twice by fellow prison inmates. He was released on bail in August 2006 after an appeals court decided that his original trial attorney failed to adequately represent him.
While temporarily released, Rocha still faced a possible retrial until the announcement at Tuesday's court hearing.
As he stood in court, Rocha wore a blue button-down shirt and sported a neatly trimmed beard, looking more like a young college instructor than a man facing murder charges.
Judge Michael Pastor dismissed the charges, commending Rocha for staying out of trouble and inspiring unwavering faith among supporters who the judge said regularly filled his courtroom.
"There are very few of us who can command that level of respect and love," Pastor said. "I don't have any doubt . . . you will go on to serve your friends and community in the future."
Applause broke out in the courtroom, and Rocha embraced his mother and friends as he left.
Outside court, Rocha said he sometimes doubted whether he would ever be released but now felt "like a butterfly that's just been released from his cocoon."
Rocha had been the subject of a high-profile campaign to secure his freedom, spearheaded by Sister Janet Harris, who was drawn to the case by creative writing assignments Rocha completed before trial in juvenile hall, where she worked as chaplain.
Harris won the support of other members of the Catholic community and lawyers at Latham and Watkins, who donated their time to work on Rocha's appeals. The case was also the subject of a documentary, "Mario's Story."
Since his release on bail, Rocha said, he has worked for a USC program that encourages students to work in schools near the university. He said he is campaigning against a ballot measure that seeks to increase punishments for juveniles accused of gang-related crimes. This summer, he flew to Washington, D.C., to teach creative writing in a juvenile hall thanks to a donation from the late NBC journalist Tim Russert and his wife, Maureen Orth.
Rocha accused Los Angeles police detectives of trying to build a case against him rather than seeking the truth.
"I should never have been tried in the first place," he said.
But prosecutors defended the police investigation and Rocha's 1997 conviction for the killing of Martin Aceves, a 17-year-old Cathedral High School student.
"It isn't cut and dried in any shape or form that he didn't do this," prosecutor Grace said outside court.
Aceves' mother declined to comment.
But relatives of Rocha said they never wavered in their belief in his innocence.
"I feel so happy," said Rocha's mother, Virginia Rocha. "It's like waking up from a nightmare."