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After 20 years in prison, man to be set free after witnesses recant testimony in murder

March 15, 2011 | 11:51 am

Francisco Carrillo, 36, smiles while seated between attorneys Ellen Eggers, left, and Linda Starr after hearing the judge's decision to overturn his conviction at the Compton Courthouse on Monday.

A man who has spent 20 years behind bars for a murder he insists he did not commit is expected to be released from Los Angeles County Jail on Tuesday after several witnesses recanted their identification of him as the killer in a drive-by shooting.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge overturned the conviction of Francisco “Franky” Carrillo, 37, on Monday afternoon, finding that the recantations and other evidence undermined his conviction for the 1991 killing.

Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo made the decision after listening to more than a week of testimony from the witnesses and watching a dramatic reconstruction of the crime scene that raised questions about what the witnesses could have seen on the evening of the shooting.

“Franky is going to have some life and some freedom, but he lost so much,” said Linda Starr, the legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project, which worked on the case. “It took far too long.”

The case underscores what legal experts say is the danger of relying heavily on 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.

Carrillo was arrested six days after the Jan. 18, 1991, killing of Donald Sarpy, 41, on a residential street in Lynwood.

Five of the six witnesses who identified Carrillo during his 1992 trial recanted last week. Among them was Sarpy’s son, Dameon, who said he initially identified Carrillo because one of his friends at the scene said he recognized Carrillo as the shooter. That friend also recanted.

Los Angeles County prosecutors expressed doubts about some of the recantations but told Bacigalupo they believe that the conviction should be overturned. The judge ordered that Carrillo be released from jail. The district attorney’s office has the option of retrying the case, but a prosecutor told Bacigalupo he did not see how that would be possible.

In addition to the Northern California Innocence Project, Carrillo was represented by a large legal team that included Ellen J. Eggers, a deputy state public defender who worked on the case in her own time, and the private law firm of Morrison & Foerster, which provided lawyers and investigators free of charge.

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--Jack Leonard

Photo: Francisco Carrillo smiles while seated between attorneys Ellen Eggers, left, and Linda Starr after hearing the judge's decision to overturn his conviction at the Compton Courthouse on Monday. Credit: Christina House / For The Times

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