Atlanta Journal Constitution
Slaying case keeps man in limbo
Friday, January 7, 2005
Justice has been slow in coming for Katie Hamlin, a 15-year-old Cherokee County girl whose nude, partially burned body was found in a dry creek near Lake Allatoona in July 2002.  But family and friends of Roberto Rocha, one of the men charged with Katie's murder, say the justice system has also been unfair to him.
Rocha, they say, was in Brazil at the time of Katie's death --- and he has a passport, immigration records and witnesses to prove it.
Rocha, the 20-year-old son of a preacher, is out of jail on $50,000 bond but remains under house arrest, monitored by a Global Positioning System ankle bracelet. He faces charges of felony murder and other crimes, from making false statements to police to rape and improper disposal of human remains.
He is permitted to leave home only to attend church.
Garry Moss, Cherokee County's district attorney, would not comment on Rocha's situation, other than to say the case is pending and "will not be prosecuted until it is time to do so."
Ken Terrell, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Marietta, called the prosecution of Rocha a "miscarriage of justice."
"I knew they were out of the country," said Terrell, who has known Rocha and his father, Joao --- pastor of the International Christian Church Presbyterian U.S.A. in Marietta --- for about four years. "They talked to me before they left about their plans to go to Brazil.
"Later on, when all of this transpired, [Joao Rocha] came to me and said, 'Remember, this was when I was gone?' I said, 'Sure I remember.' "
According to Joao Rocha, he, his wife, Eunice, and their son, Roberto, went to Brazil to visit friends and to do some missionary work.
They left the United States from Miami on June 10, 2002, and didn't return until July 10, 2002.
Ruling after 19 months
Donna Hamlin last saw her daughter alive about 11:30 p.m. on July 1, 2002.
Katie went outside "to have a smoke or talk on her cellphone," she said.
The girl's body was found the next day by a nearby resident in a dry creek bed near Lake Allatoona, less than a mile from her home.
Because someone had set fire to the body, it took authorities --- who had to rely on dental records --- a week to identify the remains.
Although investigators were sure Katie's death was a homicide, the cause of death went undetermined for 19 months, until a GBI pathologist ruled in February 2004 that Katie died of asphyxiation.
Investigators have declined to comment on why it took so long to establish the cause of death and have revealed little about what they have discovered concerning the end of Katie's short life.
An acquaintance of Katie's, Jamerson Mangrum, now 19, of Canton, was arrested nine days after her body was found. He was initially charged with statutory rape, improper disposal of a body, tampering with evidence and other crimes.
After the pathologist determined how Katie died, prosecutors charged him with felony murder.
That was when Cherokee investigators arrested Rocha, 20, of Acworth, and Jonathan Elkins, 20, of Woodstock in connection with the case.
Capt. Ron Hunton of the Sheriff's Department said Rocha's name appeared in Katie's address book and his name came up in interviews early in the investigation. One of the suspects, Hunton says, implicated Rocha. According to court documents, when Rocha was questioned by police, he told them he was present when Katie was killed and that he helped dispose of her body.
But Brian Steel, Rocha's lawyer, and family and friends say there's no significance to his name being in Katie's address book. They said they have no idea why anyone would have implicated Rocha.
The lawyer also maintains Rocha's statement to police was coerced. His client, he said, is mentally disabled, with the intelligence level of a young teenager. In the ninth grade, Steel said, Rocha read at a third-grade level.
"Roberto was not built with the equipment to withstand the barrage and coercion and duress that law enforcement placed him under at the time of this supposed confession," the lawyer said.
If the case does go to trial, Steel said, "there will be evidence that Roberto is mentally challenged and susceptible to police interrogation tactics that forced him to agree with police."
On the advice of his lawyer, Rocha would not talk to a reporter about the case.
Passport, witnesses
At a bond hearing in March, Rocha presented his Brazilian passport, airline tickets and records of dental surgery he had in Brazil as evidence he was in South America when Katie was killed.
A Lufthansa airlines employee testified that he saw Rocha when he arrived at the Sao Paulo airport. A Brazilian friend testified the family stayed with her for the last few days of their visit. And friends from the family's Marietta church testified they knew about the Brazilian trip.
Rocha's passport bears a stamp showing he entered Argentina on June 28, 2002 --- three days before Katie vanished. The passport has no Brazilian entry or exit stamps, because Brazil does not stamp the passports of its own citizens.
The passport indicates the Rocha family re-entered the United States eight days after Katie's body was discovered.
Joao Rocha said he's waiting for the district attorney to drop the charges. "This is almost a year," he said. "We are frustrated because we think justice should protect the innocent, keep things like this from going on."
Elkins, charged with being a party to felony murder and making false statements, and Mangrum have been indicted by a grand jury and remain in custody at the Cherokee County Jail awaiting trial.
But 10 months after Rocha's arrest, his case has not been presented to the grand jury, Steel noted.
In the meantime, the lawyer has filed motions to dismiss the charges or to have a speedy trial. He also wants Rocha freed from the conditions of his bond.
Under state law, a judge cannot dismiss charges on a claim of failure to provide speedy justice until 12 months after an arrest in cases where there has been no indictment, Steel said.
"The judge can't dismiss the case now, it's too early," he said. "That doesn't forgive our elected prosecutor from doing the true duty of the people --- to not have an innocent person falsely charged with this heinous crime."

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