Person of the Week: Sister Janet Harris

Sister Janet Harris has spent her adult life working with and fighting for children, and she's undertaken a decade-long campaign on behalf of one particular California youth, Mario Rocha.

In 1996 the then-16-year-old Mario was charged with murder and was awaiting trial when Sister Harris was the chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.

"I thought, 'Oh, Mario's going to get off, they're not going to convict him on the word of one witness who had been drinking,'" Sister Harris said.

Despite her faith, Mario was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

"When he was sentenced, I was too shocked to cry," she said.

After getting over her shock, Sister Harris read the transcript of the trial and was convinced Mario's lawyer had been grossly incompetent. She began working to get Mario a new trial -- interviewing witnesses, hiring a private investigator and convincing a high-powered law firm to represent him.

"With Mario it was so egregious, so horrible that I said to myself whether I win or lose, I am going to fight for justice," Sister Harris said. "His life was stolen by a system that's flawed. A system where we need to look out and say: Have we lost our moral compass?"

For Sister Harris, working to free Mario was a natural progression.

She was born in New York City in 1930 and recalls feeling she was called to become a Sister of the Presentation after high school. She soon started teaching, which led to her work with troubled teens and gangs, later making her way to Juvenile Hall where she concluded gang members were not viewed as "individuals."

'I Could Touch People's Souls'

Sister Harris meets many kids in Mario's situation and admits she can't help them all. But for her, Mario was different.

"He had the courage to tell the truth. He never put embroidery on anything he said," she said.

She was further struck by his maturity and integrity while watching Mario attend a writing class at Juvenile Hall where he wrote a biographical play and had fellow juvenile offenders perform the work.

While speaking about his life in the documentary "Mario's Story" by filmmakers Jeff Werner and Susan Koch, Mario described what it was like to see people respond to his writing.

"That shows that what I had in here really affects other people," Mario said. "And I could do something -- I could touch people's souls."

Courts Agree With Sister Harris

Now, a decade after he was charged with murder, Mario may get another chance at freedom.

This week the California Supreme Court agreed with what Sister Harris had been saying all along, that Mario didn't receive a fair trial. The state's highest court has ordered the Los Angeles district attorney to either retry Mario or set him free.

"Thank God," Sister Harris said.

For now, Mario's family thanks her for her role -- until he can do so in person.

"I just want to thank you because when I talk to him, you should hear him. He is so smart, intelligent and he knows exactly what is going on, but he can't speak it and you have been his voice," said Mario's aunt, Bertha Rocha.

Sister Harris may have won a new trial for Mario Rocha, but she said the battle to reform the juvenile justice system is far from over.

"Mario is the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of Marios out there," Sister Harris said. "But he is the lens through which we should see the lives of young people who didn't get a prestigious law firm to represent them. They're children, and we are responsible as Americans for our children. They're not disposable."

Sister Harris believes Mario could be released by June if prosecutors decide not to retry him. The district attorney has 60 days to decide if he will retry the case.

She believes he'll find there is not enough evidence to do so.

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