Innocence Project Case

Presented By
Bonnie M. Wells

Francisco "Franky" Carrillo

LA Man Freed 19 Years After Wrongful Conviction:
'I Had a Juicy Steak'

By: Tori Richards

March 26, 2011

LOS ANGELES -- It's been almost 20 years since Francisco "Franky" Carrillo has seen the ocean, tasted food in a restaurant or gone shopping.

Now he's enjoying all these things and more as he tries to integrate himself back into a society he left when the first George Bush was president and the U.S. was fighting the first Gulf War.

Carrillo was convicted in 1992 for a murder he said he didn't commit. Last week, the 37-year-old Southern California man was freed by a judge after all the witnesses who testified against him recanted their trial testimony.

"I had a juicy steak tonight and yesterday was my first Vietnamese food," Carrillo told AOL News Thursday. "My first concert was last night. Afterward, I glanced at my watch and it was 9:45 and I forced myself to think about what I would be doing in prison. I would be lying on my back watching TV. It was a very sad thought."

For now, Carrillo is staying with an attorney in a coastal suburb of Los Angeles while he figures out what to do next with his life. He has a large extended family, including a 20-year-old son, Theo, who wasn't even born when Carrillo was jailed for the crime. However, Theo visited his father regularly throughout the years and Carrillo sent money that he earned while working in prison for school clothes. Now his son is in college.

In prison, Carrillo became a certified optician and a Braille transcriber certified by the Library of Congress. He worked transcribing documents, making $1 an hour. His other jobs, such as cooking, sewing, ironing and cutting hair, paid about 15 cents an hour.

He feared for his safety and tried to keep to himself, always watchful.

"I notice I'm not on high alert now, but I'm really observant. More in tune with what's around me," he said.

And the things people take for granted -- credit cards, a driver's license, the Internet -- are all things Carrillo needs to obtain or learn. He read a lot in prison to keep current on today's technology even though he wasn't able to use it. Throughout the years, he didn't give up hope that someday he would get out.

"I lost sight of barbed wire and ball and chain and just lived my life," Carrillo said. "I was alive longer inside prison than out. I had a great support system and my belief in God. I'm just grateful for my amazing legal team."

The Legal Odyssey

On Jan. 18, 1991, six teens were standing on a curb talking in front of a house in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood. Donald Sarpy, 41, the father of one of the boys, stepped onto the porch to call his son inside when a car went by and two shots were fired, killing Sarpy.

Five of the boys picked Carrillo out of a series of police photographs because he was known in the neighborhood as associating with a gang. All the boys testified about his involvement, and Carrillo was convicted in 1992.

At the sentencing, another boy came forward to say he was actually in the car when the shooting happened and Carrillo had nothing to do with it. The judge did not want to hear the evidence and sentenced Carrillo to two life terms on one count of murder and six counts of attempted murder. The case was lost on appeal.

Then the long journey to clear his name began. California Deputy Public Defender Ellen Eggers found out about the case and the new witness. But since the appeal was lost, it wasn't part of her caseload so she had to work on the matter during her time off. She contacted Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project, for help.

"She said, 'We have a huge burden -- we have to get every single witness to recant their testimony,'" Eggers said, recalling her conversation with Starr. "My heart sank. I didn't know how we would even get one, they were so certain in their testimony. When you have five eyewitnesses positively identifying that it was the shooter, that was impossible. I would cry on the way to work thinking, how were we going to prove his innocence?"

The pair went to work trying to find all the witnesses. It took years. When they were finally questioned, all of the men said they couldn't positively identify Carrillo as the shooter.

Eggers told AOL News that a detective questioning one of the boys showed him a series of six pictures -- including Carrillo's -- and asked him to pick out the shooter. The boy picked Carrillo with the help of the detective.

"The kid told us that the cop picked out the picture and said, 'It's him,'" Eggers said. "Within the next six months, they were all brought into the station. During that time, the information got communicated between them to pick out the no. 1 photo, and it was described to them."

The picture was different from the rest: It was taken outside by police as Carrillo was riding his bike through a park.

"He was nowhere near that location. He wasn't there; he knew nothing about it," Starr said of Carrillo's involvement with the shooting.

Neither the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which investigated the case, nor the District Attorney's Office would comment on the case.

Finally, with all the witnesses -- including the victim's son -- ready to testify that they could not identify Carrillo, a Superior Court judge agreed to hear the evidence. On March 15, the judge overturned the conviction and the prosecutor did not object. The case is still technically filed and the prosecution has 60 days to decide whether to retry it.

The Innocence Project

O.J. Simpson attorney Barry Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project in 1992; to date, 267 convictions have been overturned using DNA evidence. To get a case overturned solely on eyewitness testimony, such as Carrillo's, is rare. However, mistakes police make in dealing with witnesses are all too common, Starr said.

In fact, the California Legislature is working on a bill that would adopt guidelines outlined in a 2006 report by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice. That report includes the following recommendations:

•The detective showing the photos or lineup should not have knowledge of the suspect to avoid giving clues to the witness.

•Only one person or photo should be shown at a time.

•The witness should be told that the suspect may or may not be in the group.

•The lineup should be videotaped.

•The witness should give a written statement afterward about his or her level of certainty.

Rebecca Brown, senior policy advocate for state affairs at the Innocence Project headquarters in New York, told AOL News that sometimes police may unwittingly give clues by leaning in, nodding or making statements like, "Are you sure?"

"Sure, misconduct takes place," she said. "A lot of the time what you have is law enforcement officers eager to solve a very serious crime. They are providing all sorts of clues to the witness without being aware of it. But by and large, we're not talking about rogue, bad-seed law enforcement. We are talking about folks who are not using updated witness ID protocols."

Many states are starting to come in line with these policy changes. North Carolina, New Jersey and Ohio all have passed laws, along with certain areas of Wisconsin and West Virginia. Texas, Nevada and Connecticut have laws pending, Brown said.

The California Peace Officers' Association and the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training did not return calls seeking comment.

Moving Forward

Carrillo says he isn't bitter about his case and still believes in the American system of justice. However, he wants to start working with the Innocence Project to help other people like himself.

Sponsored LinksHe's scheduled to speak at a lecture sponsored by the organization. And he plans on talking to at-risk youth to keep them from ending up behind bars. Even though he is trained as an optician, he wants to go to school to be a psychologist.

But for right now, the best thing is waking up in a safe, comfortable place, he said.

"To take a shower in the morning and shave and use regular toothpaste. And fix something to eat when I want," Carrillo said. "The beauty of being free, to actually have opportunities to do what you desire, if it's to stay up late to watch a movie or take a walk on the beach, your life is pretty much your own."