Mario Rocha's first, spartan dorm room at George Washington University felt a little like solitary confinement.
once spent a summer in solitary confinement.
In some ways, Rocha is a typical student at GW, where he enrolled in January as a freshman.
has a gift for writing, a new voter registration card and relative inexperience behind the wheel of an automobile.
But there is one difference.
spent 10 years in prison after being arrested and then convicted of first-degree murder.
Rocha was incarcerated at 16 for the murder of Martin Aceves, who died in an exchange of gunfire at a Los Angeles house party.
is on scholarship at one of the most selective colleges in America.
is 30, a decade older than most of his
only recently switched to a computer from the manual typewriter he
was allowed in prison.
to continue an education that began, for all practical purposes, in juvenile hall, as he
has had little formal education since junior high school and is largely self-taught.
"I'm taking it one semester at a time.
That's the only way I can approach this," said Rocha
, who lives with adult roommates in a house in Columbia Heights, three miles from his
former dorm room in Foggy Bottom.
is taking courses in physical geography, women's studies, weight training and the media, along with Introduction to Criminal Justice, a subject to which he
presumably needs no introduction.
One night in 1996, Rocha
brother and some friends were chased from a keg party by the sound of gunfire, not a particularly unusual occurrence in their neighborhood of Highland Park.
A few days later, police crashed through the door of the Rocha home and arrested Mario
assumed that would be enough.
"I honestly thought, maybe naively, that I was going to get released on my first court date," he
At trial, prosecutors inaccurately portrayed Rocha
as a gang member, along with his
co-defendants, two gang members in their 20s.
An eyewitness identified him as one of the shooters.
Tried as an adult, he
drew a sentence of 35 years to life.
sentencing, Rocha thought to himself, "Today is my funeral."
Before incarceration, Rocha
did not seem destined for a scholarly life.
parents separated when he
was 13; his
mother worked as a school custodian.
attended a succession of high schools and then a vocational school, where he
learned to drive a forklift.
A life's purpose
But inside Central Juvenile Hall, Rocha
found a craft that would sustain him through years of confinement and a voice that would inspire others to fight for his
was picked to participate in an inmate writing program.
On Dec. 13, 1997, he
I may not be free to do many things but nothing can stop me from having these dreams:
Dreams of going to college and obtaining an education that will help me achieve my aspirations.
is words caught the eye of Sister Janet Harris, a nun of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who had started the writing program.
"I began to watch Mario
, and he
had none of the body language of a gang member," Harris recalled.
had no gang tattoos.
could only feign enthusiasm for strutting around the courtyard with the rest of the Chicano prisoners, time he
might better spend writing plays.
A photograph from that era shows Mario
in a crowd of nine boys in orange detention jumpsuits.
is the one wearing black-rimmed glasses.
Shocked to see Rocha
convicted, Harris assembled a packet of his
creative writing and a summary of the case and began shopping it around among L.A. lawyers.
searched for nearly two years.
Harris eventually persuaded Latham & Watkins
, an A-list firm, to take the case pro bono.
The senior partner succumbed, she
said, to "good old Catholic guilt."
Prosecutors argued that the case against Rocha
had been as strong as the case against his
co-defendants, and strong enough to win a jury conviction.
The lawyers built an argument that he
was a victim of bad lawyering.
's trial lawyer, hired by his
family, had failed to object when prosecutors called Rocha a gang member.
When a witness described the shooter firing with his
left hand, the lawyer hadn't mentioned Rocha
The Latham lawyers found a witness, a party hostess, to discredit the man who had identified Rocha
as the shooter, testifying that the witness was not even standing near the fight.
was becoming a cause.
Ten months later, a judge again ruled against Rocha
Inside Cell 211 at Calipatria State Prison, Rocha
had resolved to make the best of his
wrote poetry, typed essays, filled journals and read liberation theology.
awakened daily at 4:30 a.m. and spent an hour working out, visualizing an alternate future.
would tell himself, "This is the way I want my life to unfold," he
didn't walk out of prison for another eight months, until after prosecutors lost an appeal to the state supreme court.
Recalling that first day of freedom in August 2006, he
said, "They handed me a cellphone, and it felt so small.
I handed it back to them.
I said, 'I'm not ready for this.' " He
slept that night on the roof of his
cousin's garage, reacquainting himself with the stars.
As a result of his
minor celebrity, Rocha
found himself adopted by influential people.
He stayed for a time with a movie producer in Century City before rejoining his family.
But first, Rocha
has to get through GW
struggled at first with mundane tasks such as picking classes and keeping pace with a course syllabus, emblems of a 13-year lapse in full-time education.
initial papers lacked some of the stylistic conventions of college essays.
is juggling twin identities as student and social activist.