Phenomenal Woman: Sisterly Love

Published in O, The Oprah Magazine on May 1, 2007

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.

"But I was naive," she told me. "I understood teenagers, but I didn't understand what was happening on the street." On one occasion, shots rang out from a car--and one of the boys pushed her out of the way. "He put himself in front of me," she told me. He was the one they were after. A week later the boy was killed. Another time, she said, "the police were putting terrible pressure on me to tell them what I knew about a gang crime." She refused and was arrested, thereby demonstrating her loyalty to the gang members and shaming the kids into telling what they knew so she could be released: "I knew my willingness to go to jail would be the catalyst to get the kids to talk," she said. "I got a lot of mileage out of that, believe me. It was not an impulsive decision."

In the late '70s, the Los Angeles County probation department offered Sister Janet a job as a counselor to gangs--someone who would listen to their stories and act as a sounding board. As she talked to me, I was struck by the familial way she dealt with the Almighty. Sometimes, she said, when something untenable has gone on too long, "you just have to tell him off! Tell him you've had enough. I tell him off all the time."

She deplores how fecklessly boys like Mario--who she says was misidentified as a gang member--get tried as adults and sent away forever. She keeps up a running dialogue with her favorite saints about the kids she defends. Recently, coming across a group of plaster Saint Francis statues at a garden nursery, she told him firmly, "'Francis, you wouldn't be a statue hanging around gardens if you were judged today on what you did in your youth.' Francis was an incorrigible youth," Sister Janet reminded me. "He was a sinner; they would have put him away for life."

THAT NIGHT I MET SISTER Janet at the screening of Mario's Story, which by then had won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the L.A. Film Festival. The movie makes patent the failures of the California juvenile justice system, which allows inexperienced prosecutors to decide whether boys and girls as young as 14 are to be tried as juveniles or as adults, who can then be locked away for life. Mario's conviction, we discover, was based on the testimony of one "eyewitness," who accused him of wielding a gun at a keg party where a 17-year-old youth from their gang-addled neighborhood in East Los Angeles was killed. In a series of jailhouse interviews, Mario, tall, soft-spoken, and articulate, seems neither angry nor bitter, though he has clearly absorbed what the stakes are when you're tried as an adult: "They give you a double life sentence, and in the state of California I would never be paroled unless there is a dramatic revolution in the system. So, realistically, a double life sentence becomes a death sentence."

Sister Janet first met Mario Rocha in 1996, when she was serving as chaplain for the Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall, the locked facility where hundreds of teenagers charged and convicted of crimes await trial and sentencing. Mario spent more than two years there. Sister Janet was supervising the hall's religious services and volunteers; she noticed Mario right away and arranged for him to participate in the writing program called InsideOut she had helped found. His teacher was a Los Angeles Times reporter, Duane Noriyuki, whom Sister Janet recruited for the program. Although Mario had been well on his way to dropping out of high school, in juvenile hall he was a star pupil.

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.

It was evident from the thoughtful questions at the end of Mario's Story that the audience was deeply moved. Afterward I told Sister Janet I was naturally curious to meet Mario, who has recently been awarded the prestigious PEN USA fellowship Emerging Voices while his legal fate is being determined. When Sister Janet and I discovered quite felicitously that we would both be in California at the same time, her blue eyes sparkled. "I think God is showing off a bit." She arranged to have me invited to a lunch at the beach house of the chair of the writing program's advisory board in Malibu. There I would meet not only Mario but another graduate of the InsideOut program.

The first guest to show up on the appointed day was Walter McMillan, an engaging 27-year-old African-American medical student who is president of the InsideOut Writers Alumni Association. He and Mario were in class together in 1997, but McMillan was tried as a juvenile for robbery and served four years in a juvenile jail. He credits Sister Janet and the writing program for getting him physically and psychologically out of the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where, according to Walter, his mother was on crack and he himself was shot at twice walking down the street. After getting his undergraduate degree in English at the University of Washington, McMillan is now studying nuclear medicine. "In juvenile hall," he told me, "the system says you are bad, bad, bad. How empowering to discover, 'No, I'm not!' The writing helped me connect to that question, 'Who am I?'" Sister Janet went on to say: "Reading their stories in front of their peers and having their writing affirmed means more to these boys and girls than we can imagine. And the more their stories are appreciated, the more they allow themselves to be vulnerable in their writing. The kids are very good at picking up on b.s. They know that whatever they say has to come from the truth--because the others will call them on it."

Another guest at lunch was Javier Stauring, the 45-year-old former gemologist who succeeded Sister Janet as chaplain at juvenile hall and whom she first recruited there as a volunteer. Stauring, who acts as a mentor to Mario, had brought him to the beach lunch. Mario was grinning from ear to ear--as if he still could not quite believe he was free. (He had spent his first night out of jail in ten and a half years sleeping on his family's garage roof, looking at the stars.) There beside the ocean, he and Sister Janet hugged and laughed--in prison they had often fantasized that someday Mario would be free and they would walk on the beach together. That day had arrived.

Listening to Mario talk about books, about writing and his plans for the future, it was apparent how much Sister Janet's support and his writing teacher's encouragement had meant to him. In an essay titled "Unfit," Mario wrote: "When I joined the InsideOut writing class, I searched for words to expose the cave of my soul. I wrote about memories and painful experiences. I poured forth my fears, doubts, and perplexities on paper, and I began to understand my life, who I was and why."

For someone who had just emerged from prison and didn't know if he would be forced to go back behind bars for life, Mario seemed remarkably relaxed. "I'm confident justice will be served. I'm living proof we can correct a wrong," he told me. He calls Sister Janet "my trumpet. She heard me for the first time." He told Susan Koch, the documentary filmmaker, that for him Sister Janet personified the Beatles song "Let It Be": There will be an answer, let it be, let it be.

"Sister Janet has a preferential love for the marginal, and one of her most powerful qualities is her yearning for justice, for the right things to happen," says Javier Stauring. He has seen firsthand how fiercely Sister Janet defends her charges. He was present one day when she pleaded with the hall's superintendent not to send a certain boy to the adult county jail. The superintendent, papers in hand, refused to change his mind. "She grabbed for the papers and tore them up: 'You're not sending him anywhere!'" For a moment, the superintendent was stunned. Then he started to laugh, Stauring recalls, "and the kid stayed there."

In 2003 Human Rights Watch determined that the plight of incarcerated youth in the Los Angeles County Men's Central Jail was among the worst in the world and honored Stauring with their Human Rights Watch Award for his work. Speaking in Berlin before a group of international human rights activists, Stauring told them that the United States had more than 2,225 teenagers sentenced as adults to life in prison without parole. The participants removed their earpieces, thinking that they must have misheard or that the translator had made a mistake; at the time, the rest of the world had only 12 such cases. To compound the irony, according to a study Stauring sent me done by the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, juvenile arrests in California's eight major cities in 2005 were at a 30-year low.

After lunch, Stauring, Sister Janet, Ian Graham--the young lawyer formerly with Latham & Watkins who is still working on Mario's case--and Mario took a walk on the beach. The sun was shining and dolphins frolicked not far from shore. "Being near the ocean was a poetic moment, an image of freedom," Sister Janet told me later. "That's a sacred image." Back at the house, while Mario hosed the sand off his feet, I asked him how he felt. "I'm ecstatic," he said.

THAT NIGHT I DROVE PAST the glittering lights of downtown Los Angeles to the grim Eastlake Juvenile Hall to observe two of the approximately 30 weekly writing classes taught by the InsideOut volunteers. Each week these classes reach out to about 300 youths in several juvenile facilities. I saw teenagers who were awaiting court dates and sentences that may lock them up for decades reading George Rodriguez and Maya Angelou--boys who were gang members, girls who cut themselves--and I alternately winced at their pain and marveled at what flowed from their pencils, at their pride in reading out loud the raw details of their sorrows, the flashes of insight, the dark realities so many of us never have to contemplate.

Sister Janet told me of her deep belief in the sacredness of every person, no matter how lost: "I approach every person looking for that." How does she manage to do what she does? "I don't believe in hierarchies," she said, "I believe in circles. The metaphor for what I do is jazz. I find good people and let them play their instruments." But doesn't she get discouraged? I remembered what she said the morning we met. "I'm not sure whether I believe in voices or not," she told me, "but I was driving down the freeway one day and I was having such a bad day I just cried out, 'Oh Mother of God!' Then, you know what? A very calm voice came inside me and said, 'Janet, keep your eye on the road.'"

For more information, go to mariostory.org.

Similar Articles

Browse by decade

Browse by publication

Newsweek
Vanity Fair
National Geographic

Browse by Tag