L.A. County to pay $10 million to man whose murder conviction was overturned

Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to pay $10.1 million to a man who spent 20 years behind bars before having his murder conviction overturned in 2011.

Francisco Carrillo Jr. was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1992 in the fatal drive-by shooting of Donald Sarpy in Lynwood. Carrillo, who was 16 at the time of the 1991 shooting, maintained his innocence through two trials and in prison.

In 2011, a judge overturned his conviction after witnesses who had identified Carrillo as the shooter recanted and a reenactment of the shooting convinced the court that the witnesses could not have seen the shooter well enough to accurately identify him. 

After his release from prison, Carrillo sued the county, former sheriff’s Deputy Craig Ditsch and other unnamed deputies, alleging that his civil rights had been violated.

He argued that deputies had improperly influenced the witnesses into picking his picture out of a photo lineup and that deputies involved in the case were part of the Lynwood Vikings, a white supremacist gang within the Sheriff’s Department.

Ron Kaye, the attorney who represented Carrillo in the suit, said the case “epitomizes the corrupt practices of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department in 1991” and that the deputy “stole my client’s youth by coercing a 15-year-old witness to pick Franky out of a lineup, even though [the witness] admitted he could never identify the shooter of the drive-by on the night of the crime.”

“Franky Carrillo will never regain those years of his life – the birthdays, the weddings, the graduations and the funerals of loved ones that he missed, things we all take for granted – but at least this settlement holds those responsible accountable,” he said.

Since his release, Carrillo has gone back to school and obtained a bachelor’s degree from Loyola Marymount University, Kaye said.

On the night Sarpy was killed, he had walked out of his home to talk to a group of teenagers, including his son, when someone leaned out of a passing car and opened fire.

The victim was not gang affiliated, but investigators believed the shooting stemmed from a rivalry between a primarily African American gang, the Neighborhood Crips, and the Young Crowd, a predominantly Latino gang. The teenagers who witnessed the shooting were initially only able to describe the shooter as a “Hispanic male.”

Of the six teenagers who witnessed the shooting, five were not shown photos of potential suspects until six months after the shooting. The other witness, Scott Turner, was shown the photos immediately after the shooting, but later said the deputy had steered him into picking Carrillo as the suspect.

Carrillo acknowledged in his suit that he had considered himself to be a member of the Young Crowd because he grew up in the gang’s territory, but said that by the time of the shooting, he had moved away from Lynwood and was not associating with the gang.

A corrective action plan submitted by the Sheriff’s Department to the county Board of Supervisors said the department had put in place new policies governing procedures for identifying suspects and the use of photo lineups.

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The settlement, which the supervisors approved unanimously and without discussion, will be one of the largest the county has paid out in a case involving the Sheriff’s Department.

Payouts in lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Department have driven rising litigation costs in Los Angeles County in recent years.

An analysis of county legal costs released earlier this year showed that litigation costs had risen from $95.6 million in the 2014 fiscal year to $118.9 million last year. Cases against the Sheriff’s Department accounted for $40.7 million of the total cost in 2014 and rose to $61 million in 2015. 

Kaye said the settlement, which amounts to more than $500,000 for each year Carrillo spent behind bars, is also the largest claim ever paid in a wrongful imprisonment case in California on a per-year basis.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

Twitter: @sewella

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