In 1998, Mario Rocha, a young Latino from East LA, was convicted of murder and attempted murder on the basis of one questionable identification and not a shred of physical evidence. He was sixteen years old at the time of his arrest, yet tried as an adult and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. While spending over two years at Juvenile Hall waiting for his trial, Mario joined the Inside Out Writing Program and discovered his talent for writing. Today, his stories, plays, and poems are published and performed in prisons throughout the country.
This film interweaves Mario’s Story as an inmate in one of California’s toughest maximum-security prisons with the efforts of an unlikely group of people who have come together to win his freedom. They include Sister Janet Harris, the feisty and unstoppable former chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall, Mario’s pro-bono attorneys at Latham and Watkins, one of the nation’s most prestigious and respected law firms, an aspiring filmmaker turned private detective, and Mario’s large Mexican-American family. They are united in their belief that Mario was wrongfully convicted and did not receive a fair trial guaranteed him by the United State Constitution.
Mario is more fortunate than most “lifers.” Thanks to the determination of Sister Janet, his case was taken on in 1999 by a team of pro-bono attorneys. Now, with all of his direct appeals exhausted, the only remaining legal recourse is a habeas corpus petition. It’s a long shot. These days, only about 1% of the approximately 30,000 habeas petitions filed each year are granted. But it’s Mario Rocha’s only hope. We witness the frustration of Mario’s attorneys as they file their first habeas petition in 2000, and watch helplessly as it sits on the Superior Court Judge’s desk for a year and a half before being denied. This is only one of numerous ups and downs, as Mario’s legal team works to uncover new witnesses and secure a new trial for Mario. It’s a sobering and frustrating experience for all of them. As one of his attorneys observes, “There seems to be a willingness to defend the system at all costs.”
Filmed over the course of seven years, the documentary provides a rare “behind the scenes” look at the efforts of the legal team as they pursue a new trial for Mario. The filmmakers have also been given unprecedented access to film inside Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County, California, a short distance from the US-Mexico border.
While the film clearly raises serious questions about our criminal justice system as it follows the often discouraging, but determined efforts to win Mario’s freedom, it is also a hopeful and inspiring story as we witness the unwavering efforts on the part of his attorneys, family, community, and other allies who come together to overturn injustice. Mario’s own personal growth in prison reveals how even under the worst conditions, the human spirit can rise and reach out to others. In writing about his own experiences, Mario reminds others how precious freedom is.