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Vindicated: Franky Carrillo's false conviction leads to perseverance, faith and wisdom

by Sam Blum | Off-Ramp®

After two decades in prison for a murder he did not commit, Franky Carrillo, 37, has spent his first year of freedom just trying to get back to a normal life. Michael Juliano/KPCC

The students of El Sereno's Woodrow Wilson high school wait somewhat indifferently for a guest speaker. They line the bleachers of their school's gymnasium, talking among themselves until an administrator quiets them down and introduces them to Francisco "Franky" Carrillo, a man who until March 2011 spent the previous 20 years in prison.

Franky is a casual, easygoing speaker. He doesn't look like he spent most of his life in maximum security penitentiaries. As Franky begins his story, the kids are captivated.

In 1992, Carrillo was falsely convicted of a drive-by shooting in his hometown of Lynwood, California. He served 20 years until he was released on March 16, 2011. Nowadays, he gives a lot of talks and speeches about his experience.

"For many, many years, man, I've had this sort of weird answer to that question about who am I, you know, who is Franky Carrillo? Because for many years I was just a number, I was H56800. I'm grateful to say that although I went through a very hard stage and 20 years of my life, that it didn't break me," he says.

Franky's trial began when he was just a kid, a 16-year-old who hadn't even graduated high school. At that age, Carrillo says he didn't understand the charges against him, let alone the long, confusing judicial process.

"It was so bizarre because I could remember sitting there in court," says Carrillo. "I must have been 17 at this point. I sort of felt like I had a front row seat to this, like, theater and I was just watching a show. Where are the adults here to measure this and gauge this and realize that this is wrong?"

The jury handed him a life sentence. Carrillo says that on the day he found out, the courtroom was nearly empty. "It was a surprise verdict kind of thing and my attorney, he was rubbing my back--it feels so stupid now that he was doing that."

Carrillo spent the majority of his sentence writing letters to state and federal agencies. He eventually caught the attention of the Northern California Innocence Project, and after five of the six eyewitnesses in his case recanted their testimony, on March 14, 2011, Franky was acquitted.

Carrillo's first memory of freedom takes place in the courtroom, still in handcuffs.

"The attorneys for the District Attorney's office came over and apologized to me, says Carrillo. "That was the first memory, in court, I'm still in cuffs. Just the fact that a human being came up and said, 'Hey look, although I'm saying this for the state, but as an individual, I apologize."

Carrillo says he felt unclean after prison--he wanted to take a shower as soon as he made it home. "People want to cleanse themselves from that experience," said Carrillo. "They feel that this filth that's on them, they want to take it off."

Franky now lives with one his attorneys in Manhattan Beach. He keeps a jar of articles he collected from his time in different detention centers. There's a picture he drew while in Folsom that doubles as a thank-you card to those who helped him persevere throughout his time in prison.

Carrillo says the drawing of the naked man is representative of his struggle, and a very personal possession.

"It's an image of a man, who's just sort of sitting there naked, he appears to be sort of stressed out and going through some harsh times there. But the main thing in the image isn't the man, it's more of the chair. This was so personal to me because I felt I had been stripped away from every single thing. But for me, this man to be just sitting there--when he has nothing--is really God's involvement in his life."

The inside of the card reads:

The vindication of Franky Carrillo, March 14th, 2011. Blessed are those family, friends, teachers, mentors, counselors, lawyers, advisers who hunger and thirst for the justice, for they shall be filled.

Carrillo starts this fall as a full-time undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University.

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