The state Senate on Monday approved paying $305,900 to settle a claim by Mario Rocha, who alleged he was wrongly convicted at age 16 for a murder in Highland Park that he did not commit.
The case grew out of a 1996 incident outside a party in Highland Park where members of rival gangs got into a fight. Several gunshots were fired and Rocha and two others were later arrested as the shooters.
The three defendants were tried together and found guilty of murder and attempted murder by a jury in 1997. Three witnesses identified Rocha as a shooter in the driveway, while nine other witnesses said he was not the shooter.
Rocha was sentenced to 29 years to life in prison for the murder charge and the conviction was affirmed by an appellate court in 1999. But in 2005, a Court of Appeals reversed the previous decision based on “ineffective assistance of counsel.” In 2008, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges against Rocha, citing the unavailability of witnesses.
Rocha filed a claim against the state. The California Victims Compensation and Government Claims Board voted 2-1 that Rocha should be paid $305,900 in compensation for 3,059 days spent in state prison.
“In Mr. Rocha’s case, he proved by a preponderance of evidence that he did not commit murder or attempted murder,” said Sen. Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) in presenting the settlement to the Senate. He said Rocha was not a gang member.
De León told his colleagues that Rocha went on to become a student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C, and there is a documentary about how he turned his life around.
The Senate approved the claim on a 27-3 vote, with a trio of Republicans in opposition. The bill now goes to the Assembly for consideration.