For two decades, Francisco “Franky” Carrillo insisted he was innocent.
After his arrest at age 16, he recalled, he was desperate to prove to a jury that he had nothing to do with the fatal drive-by shooting he was charged with. Then came the guilty verdict and a life prison sentence.
Carrillo was behind bars when his father died in 1999. His son, born shortly after his arrest, grew to manhood outside prison walls. During a phone call, Carrillo promised his son that he would one day be released so that he could be with him.
On Wednesday afternoon, two days after his murder conviction was overturned, Carrillo made good on his vow, walking out of Los Angeles County Jail and into the arms of his supporters and attorneys who had helped win his freedom.
Wearing jeans and a striped shirt provided by jail staff upon his release, Carrillo said he harbored no bitterness for the time he spent incarcerated and was focused instead on enjoying his new life. His immediate priority: shave, shower and grab lunch.
“I’m, personally, not angry,” he said. “I don’t want to carry that heavy load.”
An hour later, a freshly washed Carrillo wolfed down avocado-and-pear salad along with a slice of quiche, cold meats and fresh blackberries at the Echo Park home of one of his supporters. The meal, he said, was a far cry from his jailhouse lunch diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
“I am among friends,” Carrillo said as he looked at his lawyers, his brother-in-law and friends around the dinner table. “It’s a great day to be free.”
Carrillo’s murder conviction hinged solely on the word of six teenage boys who had been standing with the victim on a Lynwood street when the shooting occurred. With varying degrees of certainty, all six identified Carrillo as the gunman in the Jan. 18, 1991, killing.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo overturned the conviction this week after five of the six witnesses — including the victim’s son — recanted their identifications. The sixth witness refused to testify.
Bacigalupo did not address whether Carrillo was innocent but concluded that the recantations and other evidence undermined confidence in the jury’s verdict. Carrillo has insisted that he was home watching television in Maywood at the time of the killing, and he repeated Wednesday that he had nothing to do with the crime.
“There are some people I’m sure I will never convince of my innocence, but I’m OK with it,” he said.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has yet to announce whether Carrillo will face a retrial, but a supervising prosecutor told Bacigalupo that he did see how one would be possible.
As Carrillo ate lunch, his 19-year-old son, Theo Arechiga, arrived and embraced his father.
As a child, Arechiga visited Carrillo in nearby prisons on weekends until his father was moved to Folsom Correctional Facility. Still, the boy received a new letter from prison every week, often including portraits Carrillo had drawn of his son or cartoon versions drawn from photographs.
Arechiga, a biology student at Cerritos College, said he was unsure what to expect now that his father is free.
“It’s an adventure,” Arechiga said. “I’m excited to find out.”
Carrillo said his initial goals are to enjoy every moment: visit Dodger Stadium with his son; eat at In-n-Out; find some good seafood. Ultimately, he said, he would love to join his son at college to pursue an interest in psychology.
Sitting at the dining table, Carrillo recalled that there were low times in his quest for freedom. He wrote numerous letters to innocence groups and others begging for legal help. Each rejection letter was devastating, he said, but he never gave up hope.
“Only an innocent man can persevere with this kind of experience,” he said. “There’s something that kind of takes you over when you know it wasn’t you.”