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Debbie O'Leary
IU School of Law--Bloomington

Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2008

"Mario's Story:" A tale of justice deferred

IU Law graduate to introduce documentary about California man's struggle for justice

April 2, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Mario Rocha spent 10 years in California prisons after weak legal representation caused him to be convicted of murder for an incident that took place when he was 16.

He is now a free man, thanks to the efforts of a Roman Catholic nun and a legal team headed by a graduate of the Indiana University School of Law--Bloomington.

The attorney, Bob Long, will return to IU on Wednesday, April 9, to introduce and show Mario's Story, a documentary film that tells the story of Rocha's fight for justice. Directed by Jeff Werner and Susan Koch, Mario's Story won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival.

"It tells a great story about the importance of making sure the system works right," said Long, who earned an undergraduate degree from IU Bloomington in 1968 and a law degree in 1971. "And it tells an important story for law students -- that what you do makes a difference."

The film will be shown at 4:30 p.m. in the Moot Court Room of the Law School, 211 S. Indiana Ave. The event, sponsored by the Law School, is free and open to the public.

Rocha was a smart teenager from East Los Angeles who did well in school, Long said, but he found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. In February 1996, he was at a party where there was a fight, and a 17-year-old was killed and another person was shot in the hand. Accounts of what happened were confused, but one witness claimed Rocha had a gun. He was tried with two gang members, and in 1998, all three were convicted.

His case might have been forgotten but for Sister Janet Harris, who served as chaplain for Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles and ran a writing program for incarcerated youth. She believed in Rocha's innocence, and through her efforts, attorneys with the high-powered Los Angeles firm Latham & Watkins agreed to take the case pro bono.

Long, who served as lead counsel, said the firm signed on after Rocha passed a polygraph and a review of the case record showed his original attorney failed to pursue evidence that his client was innocent.

"I knew you didn't make a commitment to represent someone in a habeas case casually. It's a very significant undertaking," said Long, whose career was primarily in business law, not criminal law.

Filmmakers Werner and Koch took an interest, and the lawyers, despite initial concerns about confidentiality, gave them behind-the-scenes access. But the appeal took longer than anyone could have anticipated, with local judges twice taking a year or more to issue rulings that let the process move forward.

Finally, in December 2005, a California appeals court overturned Rocha's conviction on the grounds that he did not receive a fair trial because of flawed legal representation. The case was the last that Long argued before retiring from active practice.

Rocha was released from prison in the summer of 2006. The Los Angeles County district attorney's office refiled charges but hasn't taken steps to bring the case to trial, Long said.

"We're kind of in a stare-down contest," he said.

Today, Rocha is working at the University of Southern California and hoping to enroll in college once his legal problems are behind him.

"He writes so well, and he speaks from the heart," Long said. "He has a keen eye for justice issues. While he was incarcerated, he always spoke of hope and his desire to see justice done. He never expressed bitterness. He's just a very inspirational guy."

Long said Rocha's case isn't an indictment of the U.S. justice system, but it shows how the system doesn't work if an attorney doesn't do his job well.

"The people in the DA's office for the County of Los Angeles know how to try a case and get a conviction," he said. "Unless you are represented by strong, capable counsel -- especially in a case with gang overtones -- you are going to lose."