Exonerated Man Gets $10 Million, but What He Wants Is to End the Death Penalty

Californians will choose in November whether to abolish or to speed up capital punishment.

Franky Carrillo embraces the grandmother of his child, Delia Arechiga, outside the men’s prison near downtown after his release. (Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/‘Los Angeles Times’ via Getty Images)

Aug 2, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sean Eckhardt is TakePart's editorial fellow.

Franky Carrillo spent 20 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit before being exonerated and released in 2011. The 42-year-old doesn’t seem to have wasted one day since. He’s purchased a home and proposed to his girlfriend, and his second son was born in 2013.

Recent months brought two major life changes: He earned his bachelor’s degree after four years of studying sociology at Loyola Marymount University, and he reached a settlement for $10.1 million with Los Angeles County for his wrongful conviction, which breaks down to $500,000 for every year he spent in prison.

But he’s not taking that life-changing sum as an excuse to stop trying to save the lives of others.

Carrillo is advocating for Proposition 62, which would abolish the death penalty in California at the ballot box. Although he was not sentenced to death himself, he knows firsthand that people are wrongly caught up in the criminal justice system, and he is fighting to make sure others who are wrongfully incarcerated have the same chance to prove their innocence that he did.

“[The criminal justice system] cannot guarantee that the people who are prosecuted and given the death sentence had a fair trial, and more importantly for me, that they were actually guilty,” Carrillo said. “Many people who have been executed have been found to be innocent, and we shouldn’t do that.”

Proposition 62 would abolish the death penalty and replace it with a life sentence without the possibility of parole, including for those already sitting on death row. It would also require those given the sentence to work in prison, and 60 percent of the wages earned could go to benefit victims and their families.

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Getting it passed won’t be easy—Carrillo has tried and failed once before. Soon after he was exonerated, he felt compelled to join the “Yes on 34” campaign, advocating for the 2012 ballot initiative that would have abolished the death penalty in California. After months of long hours of campaigning and voter outreach, the proposition was defeated 52 to 48 percent. For Carrillo, it was a tough loss.

“I was devastated, to be completely honest,” he said. “But the idea was that we would try again, and here we are four years later.”

Part of Carrillo’s determination stems from his college education. In the Restorative Justice class we both took during our last semester at LMU, for example, he never shied away from sharing his opinions. He offered a valuable perspective, uniquely suited for a class that challenged many students’ notions of the fairness of the criminal justice system in the United States. It’s an experience from which he says he gained a broader understanding of people from varied backgrounds and, with that understanding of others, how important it is to encourage individual thinking in education to inspire social change.

“It’s reassuring to know that these young people, who are obviously not immune or separated from the realities of our world, are knowledgeable,” Carrillo said. “They’re aware of the social circumstances and ramifications of the society that we live in.”

Educating the public on the benefits of eliminating the death penalty—as well as increased turnout by millennials who either sat out or were not eligible to vote in 2012, like many Carrillo studied with at LMU—will be key to that effort.

The United States is the only Western country that still uses the death penalty. California leads the nation in prisoners awaiting execution, with 743 prisoners stuck in the backlog. Only 13 people have been executed in the state since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1978, at a cost of $4 billion, according to a 2011 study.

Among the supporters of Proposition 62 are the ACLU and Democratic politicians including former President Jimmy Carter, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who is running for California’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Abolishing the death penalty, however, will not be the only option for California voters this fall, raising the stakes for those aligned with Carrillo. A competing measure, Proposition 66, would accelerate and streamline the process of executing those on California’s death row, the largest in the United States. Those advocating for this measure say the death penalty in the state should be reformed but argue that prosecutors should have the option in certain cases. The measure would increase funding to expand the pool of available defense attorneys and require that those sentenced to death be appointed a lawyer at the time of the sentence. A death row inmate in California will often wait five years or more before being assigned an attorney. Supporters of the proposition include most of the state’s district attorneys and county sheriffs and former Republican Govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian.

“The death penalty...occurs in less than 2 percent of murders across this state,” Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, who also is the “Yes on 66” campaign cochair, said in a press conference in May. “It is a rare event but is an option that prosecutors should have.”

Thirty-one states, including California, use capital punishment, while 19 have rejected it, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

(Illustration: National Conference of State Legislators)

Both propositions’ advocates claim that each measure would decrease the immense cost of maintaining California’s death row. Passing Proposition 62 could save the state about $150 million per year, according to a fiscal impact statement released by the state’s legislative analyst. Proposition 66 would initially increase death row spending, but the fiscal impact statement indicates that long-term savings could be in the tens of millions of dollars.

But for Carrillo, who knows that not everyone caught up in the criminal justice system is guilty of a crime, saving money is not the point, and fast-tracking executions is not a risk worth taking.

“It took me 20 years to prove my innocence. You need time. You need evidence to surface. You need great attorneys to do the work,” he said. “If you fast-track it, if you want to rush through the process, you’re jeopardizing those who are wrongfully convicted to be executed. There is no way around that.”