Sister Janet began to save Mario's writings (“I look out my tainted window, absorbing the dark abandoned field, and I ask myself what kind of life is this? I stare at the large trees that distantly surround these buildings and think this is not the way I want to live”). She undertook her own investigation of the murder he was accused of and became so convinced of his innocence that she was able to persuade the lawyers in the white-shoe Los Angeles law firm of Latham & Watkins to take his case pro bono; they also gave Mario a lie detector test, which he passed. Around that time, documentary filmmaker Susan Koch happened to hear Sister Janet discussing the case; then and there Koch decided to do a film on Mario, never dreaming that the firm's effort to overturn Mario's conviction would involve eight years of frustrating twists and turns—arguing motions, waiting for decisions, trying new tactics. The film, codirected by Jeff Werner, shows the extreme difficulty of freeing anyone once convicted, even with extraordinary resources at your disposal—Latham & Watkins has spent more than a million dollars on the case. In the end, the California Appeals Court ruled that the lawyer Mario's family hired after mortgaging their home was so ineffective as to undermine the integrity of his trial. He failed to find witnesses to refute the single eyewitness, who, as Sister Janet's investigation revealed, had little credibility. The lawyer also failed to point out that although the eyewitness testified that the shooter fired the gun with his left hand, Mario is right-handed. Nor did the lawyer ask that Mario, who did not belong to a gang, be tried separately from the two gang members who were also tried for the murder. The film ends in August 2006 as Mario is released from prison, but the L.A. District Attorney's office has vowed to put Mario on trial again—as early as this spring. “It's really pushing the ethical boundaries,” Sister Janet charges. “They are going to try to smear him as a Latino gang member and hope a jury will seize on that.”

Onscreen, Sister Janet combines serenity and steeliness. Her calm belies her anguish at seeing more and more girls and boys in their early to mid teens subjected to harsh adult sentences, particularly in California, where a powerful union of corrections officers supported by rich building interests lobbies to keep prisons full and new ones under construction. Young people sent to adult facilities, Sister Janet argues, “often don't have the emotional and moral strength to survive. Some do, but drugs are so available. I've seen young people just give up and start using drugs.” Many young offenders, she points out, have been manipulated by the sociopaths they find themselves among. She feels that adolescents should be held to a different standard than adults, citing studies showing that adolescents' brains are not fully developed until their early 20s. These young people deserve a system of their own, she believes. Justice for juveniles is at stake.


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