Photo: Art Strieber
With her white spiky hair, her black boots, and the energy of someone half her age, Sister Janet Harris was not the 77-year-old nun I had pictured who taught high school in Los Angeles some 30 years ago with my late aunt, also a Presentation Sister in California. Guilt had driven me to meet her for coffee on a September Saturday morning in Washington, D.C. A day earlier an envelope had sailed through my mail slot inviting me to the screening of Mario's Story, a feature-length documentary about a young man in Los Angeles who was tried as an adult at age 17 and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for murder. Because of the dramatic campaign Sister Janet set in motion to free this young Latino from what she saw as an unjust and wrongful conviction—a struggle that has taken almost a decade and is not over yet—Mario Rocha's sentence was vacated by the California Court of Appeals, an extraordinary outcome that happens less than 1 percent of the time. Now 28, he's out on $1,000,000 bail.
Sister Janet first got in touch with me after my aunt, Sister Agnes, passed away a few years ago. She and my aunt had taught together in the 1970s at a girls' high school in downtown Los Angeles, where my reticent aunt had persevered in teaching Latin and biology in the face of gangs and graffiti. Over our coffee together, with the charm she brings to her work on behalf of juvenile offenders, Sister Janet drew me into her world as if we were old friends. She grew up in upper Manhattan in an Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighborhood; she wanted to become a Broadway actress, but her awakening to the church had already begun at the nearby Cloisters museum of medieval art—the illuminated manuscripts of the monks enthralled her. Art led her to God. A few years after her father, a merchant seaman, moved the family west to San Francisco, Janet, 17, entered the teaching order of the Presentation Sisters.
In the early '70s, teaching in downtown Los Angeles, she allowed neighborhood gangs to use the school's playing fields every Saturday. At the time, she was pursuing a master's degree in communications at Loyola University; for her thesis she decided to make a film about the 18th Street gang and the Temple Street gang. Watching them from the bleachers week after week, she became adept at knowing when kids were lying and when they were telling the truth. And she won their trust.