Franky Carrillo was just 16-years-old in 1991 when police showed up at his Maywood, California, home with a warrant for his arrest. Having no idea what was going on, Carrillo was taken into police custody. He was immediately put in a lineup.
A 15-year-old boy singled Carrillo out for the January 1991 shooting of Donald Sarpy in Lynwood, California—about six miles away from Carrillo’s home. Carrillo was taken to jail and subsequently put on trial for first-degree murder. Based on the testimony of the young witness—as well as five others who came forward—Carrillo was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Throughout the trial and into his prison sentence, Carrillo maintained his innocence. He wrote letters to every politician and innocence project he could find.
“I was a boy,” Carrillo tells TakePart. “I was a high school student living at home with my father. I had never voted. Never had a car. This was a situation that confused me, and the adults around me had nowhere to turn. There were many times I felt like a spectator in someone else’s life.”
It’s hard enough for someone like Carrillo to exonerate himself, but exoneration is impossible for a dead man.
Franky Carrillo sat in prison for 15 years before the Northern California Innocence Project decided to look into his case. After five years of work, on March 14, 2011, the Los Angeles County Superior Court reversed Carrillo’s conviction and ordered his release. Five of six witnesses who put Carrillo behind bars recanted their testimony—including the victim’s son.
In the 14 months since his exoneration, Franky Carrillo has become a living embodiment of why it’s so important to keep the possibility of a second chance alive for those convicted of murder. In the months following release, Carrillo has taken the time to visit orphanages and juvenile correctional camps for young offenders. “I want to be a beacon of hope to these young boys.”
The exonerated prisoner is attending college at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. Like most students, he’s taking his time to figure out his major. “I’m officially undeclared,” he says with a laugh.
But Franky Carrillo is a fully declared and active member of the anti-death penalty movement.
Keeping the death penalty alive in California costs taxpayers an estimated $185 million per year. Since its implementation in 1978, 13 people have been executed at a cost of $13 billion. Anti-death penalty advocates are hoping to use these figures to pass the SAFE California initiative this coming November, which would replace the death penalty in California with a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. Arguing the tremendous cost of the death penalty has proved a persuasive rhetorical tool.
According to pollsters, however, the death penalty still has 59 percent support in California. Rather than ban capital punishment because the system is too costly, many in that 59 percent want to streamline California’s death penalty process to closer resemble Texas’s system—which eliminates several costly layers of appeals.
Even though he was never on Death Row, Carrillo’s case illustrates what a dangerous idea streamlining is. Innocent people are convicted of grievous crimes in America. It’s hard enough for someone like Carrillo to exonerate himself, but exoneration is impossible for a dead man.
By virtually all accounts, Texas and its streamlined system executed at least one innocent man, Carlos DeLuna, in 1989.
Carrillo knows there are others like him locked up around the country.
“I know the stigma of convicted people saying ‘I didn’t do it,’ ” says Carrillo. “People don’t want to look in your direction. You’re stuck with this double-whammy.”
His voice may prove crucial to ensuring California never pulls the switch on a tragedy like the execution of Carlos DeLuna.
“The system is broken,” says Carrillo. “This happened to a 16-year-old boy. This can happen to anyone. That’s my message.”
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