An appellate court Wednesday overturned the conviction of a man found guilty of murder as a teen, arguing that the trial attorney conducted such a flawed investigation that the man did not receive a fair trial.
The 10-page opinion from the California 2nd District Court of Appeal was a victory for Mario Rocha and his supporters, who have long argued that he is innocent of the crime.
Rocha’s bid for a new trial has been championed by Sister Janet Harris, a Roman Catholic nun who met him in juvenile hall and eventually persuaded attorneys at Latham & Watkins, a high-powered law firm, to take the case pro bono.
“This has been a long, long battle with a lot of hope along the way and a lot of disappointments along the way,” said Robert Long, lead counsel on the case. “To finally get the relief we asked for, this is just a great day of joy.”
Rocha was a 16-year-old from Highland Park when he was sentenced to 35 years to life for the 1996 murder of Martin Aceves, a 17-year-old honors student at Cathedral High School near downtown Los Angeles.
During oral arguments in a petition for habeas corpus held in October, Long made a bid for a new trial on several grounds, including ineffective counsel provided by Anthony Raul Garcia, Rocha’s trial attorney.
In its ruling Wednesday, the appellate judges echoed concerns about Garcia.
The court found that he failed to interview witnesses and pursue leads that might have been beneficial to Rocha’s case.
The potential witnesses were among the more than 40 guests at the party where the shooting occurred.
Three people identified Rocha as the shooter, but only one claimed to be certain of the identification.
Two other men were convicted in Aceves’ murder.
The court said that Garcia failed to meet with Rocha’s previous attorney and that he “spent little time preparing for trial.”
“His October timesheets reveal that he spent only 8 1/2 hours on petitioner’s case that month,” the judges wrote.
Three weeks before the scheduled trial date of Nov. 10, 1997, Garcia’s investigation of witnesses was still incomplete, the court said.
In an interview Wednesday, Garcia said he welcomed the decision.
“As a criminal trial attorney I would welcome a reversal of any conviction for any defendant, including my former client Mr. Rocha,” he said.
The court’s decision was a holiday surprise for Harris and the staff of Latham & Watkins, which spent six years working on the case -- and much of Wednesday on the phone notifying supporters of the news.
“It is extremely gratifying for us because of all the hard work that a large number of people at our firm and in the community have put into the case,” said Ian Graham, who assisted on the case.
The murder case is far removed from the matters the attorneys normally handle. Long is a business trial lawyer.
The appellate court’s decision does not mean Rocha will be released soon. The decision is stayed for 30 days.
During that time, the California attorney general’s office, which represents the district attorney’s office in such cases, must decide whether it will release Rocha, retry him or appeal the case to the California Supreme Court, said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office.
“We’re asking them to appeal the decision,” said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office.