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

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

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.


  1. I wish i was there! continue to reach out and share your story Mario! We need more Mario’s like you…You rock! share on …Luisa

  2. Does anyone know ways to get involved with some of that work he is a part of?

    Would be great to connect our work.

  3. I am cuban lady, and I know freedom is not just a name a noun, or a verb is everything, Mario was in jail, yeah but his body and spirit wasn,t you can control body movements,but never the soul and mind, and Mario is a example of that, he never give up, vern two his life was in danger,with out, any doub, Mario is a beautiful example of the strong and spiritual mind, IF Mario was a wake person, he never will be survive, so many strugles and so much pain, to be lock up, when he never commited any crimen, he only mistake and fault, was he was friendly we some gang members of his hometown and on top of that his hair cut was exatly like them, big deal, so if me myself, one of these day I dress like a freaky thing. the society will presume, that I am out my marbles? I leave that question, without answering, for you, american justice system answer for me. peace out.

  4. I just had the pleasure of looking at the documentary , so many emotions and such a hard ordeal for someone to go through and remain positive , A true testament of what positive thinking can bring . Peace and good luck with all your trials in life.

  5. I just watch the documentary… what a powerful story of love, persistence, integrity, faith, strength… How many more Marios and Marias are there? How many more brave, loving, and dedicated sisters Janets and lawyers willing to work pro-Bono and persisting in doing a good job are out there? My heart goes in gratitude to all of them… What a wonderful lesson, many thanks!

  6. I just saw your story Mario. This is one of life’s things that happen because you were chosen to teach others. I believe you will be a lawyer one day and will have the honor of saving other young lives. God has blessed you, he did so for a reason, and you have found that reason. Pursue what you feel in your heart. My heart and support goes out to you.


  7. just watched the documentary…i guess everyone in their own right has their adversities and perhaps watching others break through and succeed through their own gives us not only hope but a sense of determination to fulfill our own desires and it was for mario to conquer freedom..its so easy to watch yet to think of the actual length of that, his reality is honestly mind-blowing, the amount of mental stability and strength that he displayed day by day cant be put into words, simply an inspiration

  8. Wow Mario! And your family my true respects for that fight!! I Have a 15 year old boy a Great awesome kid, i think i Would turn the World around if Anything Would happen like it,(.of course not) Like i learned Tonight in watching you documentary that the system does what’s fast and easy and does not care about our young kids.. Of course justice had to be done both ways to the 17 year old kid that was killed and to Mario that his mistake was hanging around with his neighborhood crowd. That unfortunate our young kids have to be part of a cruel word, which they grow in it, without love and good guidance so they find themselves being trapped with one choice…
    And the system will not take the time and the heart to help, to hire attorneys, investigators, to be 99% of the truth.. Please parents and guardians take care of your children from the day you choose to bring them in this world.. It starts at home, if you live in a gang neighborhood and your teen runs the minimum risk of getting involved by pressure or society, Please move to a better city. Until we all work together we can change the future of our kids. Teens.!! You ask any teen leaving a dangerous life if they like it . I bet you . They will say NO. I want a good life..

  9. Loved the documentary and wanted to know what happened afterwards bc at the end of the film it had said you were arrested bc they wanted to charge you with the same crime again and I just couldnt believe after all that they would still try and do that to you! Good job and hope u do well in school !!!

  10. I have been moved by Mario’s story on many occasions. I watched it once just before entering nursing school and I remember being troubled at the injustice that was thrust unto this young man. I was so in awe of his unbreakable courage and strong faith. I periodically thought about his strife and tried to follow what information I could about his case, all the while praying for Mario’s situation to be righted indefinitely. I watched the documentary again recently. Always moved by the deep and true humility that this man proudly stood his ground with. I feel Mario is as much an angel himself as any person that advocated for him. I know he has inspired people all over the world. He definitely inspired me.

  11. I hope you are ok and that your free from everything yoy have been in I wish you the best in life. Love julia

  12. Wow I just watched his documentry and it really moveve me. It took me back to my younger days that I have tryed to bury in my past, I to spent many years of my juvenile life incarcerated from the age 11 thruogh 18 year old and I to witnessed and experienced injustice, muder,brutalities in every level from assults,stabbings,rapes ect of staff and fellow peers. Losing freedom us one thing but losing hope, losing your innocence,your soul,your good name is another. Mario story is a victory for us all because this could happen to any of us. Thank God for the people that came to his aid, thank God and God bless them. And shame on those heartless people who defend lies and falsely accuse they are no differant then the real murders.

  13. Thank God for angels like the nun that believed in him while he was in juvenile hall. Great job from the lawyers, excellent people.
    I hope Mario is doing well, the best to his family. Mario should talk to all of those young people that do not believe in themselves and want to stay around the wrong friends, everybody deserves an opportunity, it just takes someone to talk to them.

  14. Mario ,I just finished watching your story on Netflix and I cried from the beginning to the end .I am so happy you are FREE and helping others may God continue to bless you .

  15. After watching Mario’s Story, I must say that I truly identified with your mom. As a Latina mother myself, also having dealt with the incarceration of a young son, I felt her heartache and cried with her. I strongly believe that our justice system is flawed. There is no denying that our young men and women are forever branded by a stereotype. This “stigma” no doubt, played a large role in your initial arrest, incarceration, and ultimately, your uphill battle towards freedom. You are now in a unique position to educate our youth. Teach them, every chance you get, that they are at a higher risk of experiencing your ordeal firsthand. May the lord be with you and your loved ones always.

  16. Mario,

    I love and respect you and your family. Thank God for the angels in your life that helped to free an innocent. You shall always be in my heart. I wish you all that is good in life.

    I mourn for those who are still falsely imprisoned.

  17. Hi I want to see if there anybody out there that can help or hear my story. My son 17 just got sentece an just base on a teacher saying he resembles the guy she saw shooting at a car we did hired a private lawyer but I believe he sold him self to the D.A because how can a young man be sentence with no other evedince but a woman that more likely has seen us cuz we been living here for 10 years my son would pick up my 5 year old everyday from the gave him 28 months in Y.A with a stirck I don’t believe THERE IS JUSTICE IN THE JUVENILE SYSTEM ..

  18. I was touched by your story as a whole. You are a true fighter and your motivation to continue to fight inspired me. You are true inspiration. I wish you all the best in school since I know you are very knowledgeable and intelligent to be a voice for many Latino young man. My blessings to all that were involved in Mario’s case in some whay or the other. You are all true angels! For the DA I don’t have no sympathy for you all, need to do a better job in gathering and investigating thoroughly!! Very disappointed by them!! Mario wish you all the best in everything you set your mind to and God Bless.

  19. I have just watched your story documentary, what happened next did you go back to court? Did you win? (I hope so) are you a completely free man. I guess what I’m trying to say is where is the revenge? We’re are all the lawsuits against the state that wrongfully convicted you? People need to pay and lose there jobs. I’ve served 7 and a half years for something I have done so I know how it feels to be locked up in a human zoo. Someone needs to pay for all the suffering, the time of your life they took away. You can’t ever get it back. That’s why lawsuits need to happen so they think twice and be much more careful so this won’t happen to other people. You need to get paid my friend. I’m happy for you good luck and I’m waiting for part 2 of Mario’s Story.
    Michael Do O. Canada, Ontario, Toronto.

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