From Life Sentence to Liberation: Mario Rocha Shares His Experience of Injustice

Mario Rocha, a Latino from East Los Angeles who was wrongly convicted of both first-degree murder and attempted murder, visited Swarthmore Thursday, November 17, to share his story of injustice. The conversation touched on the ideals that Rocha held on to while imprisoned, namely individuality and constant inquisition of his surroundings, and featured clips from the documentary that followed his experience, Mario’s Story.

“The fist of justice taught me about justice in this country,” Rocha said, reflecting on the exhausting process necessary in order to be fairly tried.

In 1998, Rocha, then 16 years old, was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. A year after his conviction, Rocha’s case was taken on by a team of the country’s top attorneys, who argued that he was wrongfully convicted and did not receive a fair trial. It wasn’t until 2006 that his verdict was reversed and he was released from prison.

When the conversation touched on Rocha’s interpretation of the word ‘freedom’, his voice shook. He said freedom is not determined by being in prison but by having a mind of one’s own. “When you stand on the righteousness of your principles there is a certain power that the system of authority fears and understands,” said Rocha.

 While spending time in a juvenile detention center waiting for his trial, Mario joined the Inside Out Writing Program and discovered his talent for writing. Rocha said it was through writing that he never felt oppressed while in prison.

“I [found] some way to liberate myself through writing,” Rocha said.

The evening concluded with a brief Q and A. When asked if he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, Rocha responded, “Where else was I supposed to be if not in my own community?”

Since 2009, Rocha has been studying at George Washington University with hopes to later attend law school. Rocha said he and his attorneys are now working on ways to shorten imprisoned juveniles’ sentences through college access programs.

Director of the Intercultural Center, Rafael Zapata helped organize Rocha’s visit. Zapata found that Rocha’s story provided valuable insight into the issues of the United States justice system and communities like the one Rocha is from.

Yin Guan ’13, who helped organize the school’s request to fund Rocha’s visit, came to hear Rocha’s story for herself.

“The visit definitely exceeded my expectations,” she said.

Further details about Rocha’s story can be found on the documentary’s website.