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Murder conviction voided after 20 years

Five witnesses who identified Francisco Carrillo as the gunman in a Lynwood drive-by shooting recant. A mock staging of the crime raises doubts about whether they could ever have reliably identified the shooter.

March 16, 2011|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Francisco Carrillo, seated between attorneys Ellen Eggers, left, and Linda Starr at the Compton Courthouse, smiles after hearing the judge overturn his conviction.
Francisco Carrillo, seated between attorneys Ellen Eggers, left, and… (Christina House / For the…)

Superior Court Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo posed a question to the slim man wearing blue jailhouse scrubs. Which is worse, the judge asked, an innocent man wrongfully convicted or the real perpetrator remaining free?

"The wrong guy going to prison," Francisco "Franky" Carrillo replied without hesitation. "For the past 20 years, I've lived that experience. And I think it's the worst predicament any human being can be under."

Days after the courtroom exchange, Carrillo, 37, was expected to be freed late Tuesday or Wednesday from Los Angeles County Jail, having spent two decades behind bars for a fatal drive-by shooting he insists he did not commit.

Conviction overturned: In Section A on March 16, an article about the overturning of a 1992 murder conviction after several witnesses recanted their identification of the defendant included a quote from the original prosecutor, Mary Ann Escalante, about one of those witnesses: "I believed him with all my heart." The story should have made clear that Escalante's comment referred to the witness' original trial testimony, not his recantation. —

Bacigalupo overturned Carrillo's 1992 murder conviction Monday after witnesses recanted their identification of him as the gunman and a dramatic reconstruction of the shooting raised doubts about whether they could have ever reliably identified the shooter.

The murder case against Carrillo hinged solely on the word of six teenage boys who had been standing with the victim on a Lynwood street when the gunman drove by. One jury deadlocked 7 to 5 in favor of acquitting Carrillo, but a second jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to two life terms in prison.

Last week, five of the six witnesses testified at the Compton Courthouse that they had not clearly seen the gunman. Among them was the victim's son, who said he made his identification because one of his friends at the scene said he recognized Carrillo as the shooter. That friend also recanted.

The case underscores what legal experts say is the danger of eyewitness testimony. Studies have shown that faulty identifications are the biggest factor in wrongful convictions and that witnesses are particularly unreliable when identifying someone of a different race. The witnesses who identified Carrillo are black, while he is Latino.

Bacigalupo did not address whether Carrillo is innocent but concluded that the recantations and other evidence undermined confidence in the jury's verdict.

Carrillo's supporters, however, said they have no doubts about his innocence and have named three other men as suspects in the shooting.

"He's 100% innocent…. I would stake my soul on it," said Ellen J. Eggers, a deputy state public defender who worked on Carrillo's case on her own time and helped assemble his legal team. "I can't wait for Franky to start his life."

Carrillo's 20-year quest for freedom won the support of a large legal team, including the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara University and the law firm Morrison & Foerster, which provided lawyers and investigators free of charge.

The team examined the case, interviewing witnesses, who recanted. The attorneys then filed legal papers challenging the validity of the conviction based on the recantations and the identification of the other possible suspects.

The witnesses were standing near the curb on Lugo Avenue well after sunset Jan. 18, 1991, when Donald Sarpy walked out of his home to talk to his son. A car cruised down the residential street and then made a second pass. A passenger leaned out the window and fired several shots. Sarpy, 41, was struck in the chest.

The victim had no connection to any gang, but the area had seen tit-for-tat shootings between a predominantly African American gang, the Neighborhood Crips, and a mostly Latino gang, Young Crowd. That night, Scott Turner, a Neighborhood Crips member and one of the boys standing on the sidewalk, identified a photograph of Carrillo as that of the shooter.

After his arrest, Carrillo, then 16, denied any involvement in the shooting, telling detectives he was home watching television the night of the killing. He had grown up in Lynwood but moved to Maywood more than a year earlier to live with his father. Carrillo admitted he was a Young Crowd member but said he had not recently associated with the gang.

The other boys were not asked to review a photo lineup of Carrillo until six months after the shooting. Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Ann Escalante, who prosecuted Carrillo, described the sheriff's investigation as "shoddy at best" when she testified Monday.

With varying degrees of certainty, the boys selected Carrillo's photograph from the same six-pack of suspect photographs that Turner had been shown.

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