updated 10/28/2008 7:32:08 PM ET 2008-10-28T23:32:08

A judge on Tuesday dismissed charges against a man who had spent a decade in prison for murder until his conviction was overturned.

Prosecutors told the judge they wouldn't retry the case against Mario Rocha because they couldn't locate crucial eyewitnesses.

"I'm like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon," said Rocha, who was surrounded by family and friends who moments earlier had erupted into applause in court. "It's a big sense of relief."

His case had drawn the attention of lawyers, entertainment industry executives and others. A documentary titled "Mario's Story" was shown at film festivals and won the audience award at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival.

Rocha, now 29, was just 16 when he was sentenced to 35 years to life in prison for the murder of Martin Aceves, who was shot while trying to break up a fight involving gang members who crashed a party in 1996. Two gang members also were convicted.

Nearly three years ago, an appeals court overturned Rocha's conviction, saying his lawyer did a poor job.

Prosecutors had tried since then to put together another case against Rocha, who was released in August 2006 and has remained free while awaiting a final decision.

On Tuesday, after prosecutors announced their decision, Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor dismissed one count of murder and one count of attempted murder.

Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace declined to comment outside court about the number of witnesses who couldn't be found or the testimony they could have provided.

Defense attorney Michael Adelson said his investigators found witnesses who could place Rocha at the back of a yard and not at the front where the shooting occurred. Adelson said his client was running for cover when shots were fired.

Since his release, Rocha has been visiting juvenile halls across Southern California, telling teens about his experiences. He also has taught a summer writing and social justice course to incarcerated teens.

Rocha wants to get a college degree and has been accepted to George Washington University but said he may attend the University of Southern California.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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