On Tuesday, July 20, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to award a civil rights settlement of $10.1 million to Francisco Carrillo for 20 years of wrongful imprisonment. That’s $500,000 for every year of his life he spent behind bars.
It is the largest per anum settlement for wrongful imprisonment in California history.
Franky Carrillo was a sixteen-year-old high school student when he was arrested for the 1991 drive-by murder of Donald Sarpy. In 1992, after two trials, the first with a hung jury, Carrillo was convicted of the murder, along with multiple counts of attempted murder, for which he was given a life sentence, plus a second sentence of 30-to-life. The two sentences were to run consecutively, reducing the chance of Carrillo ever getting paroled to zero.
Throughout two criminal trials (the first produced a hung jury) and his 20 years in custody, Mr. Carrillo insisted on his innocence and wrote everyone he could think of try to get someone to help with his case. When at first that failed, he filed his own habeas petition. He also refused any plea bargain that involved an “explicit or implicit admission of guilt.”
But fifteen years into his sentence, an attorney responded to his letters and decided to look into Carrillo’s case.
On July 26, 2011, after a weeklong evidentiary hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paul Bacigalupo granted Carrillo’s habeas corpus request and vacated Carrillo’s sentence. The LA District attorney’s office neither appealed the ruling, nor attempted to re-file charges.
And so it was that Franky Carrillo was released from custody on March 16, 2011, after having been locked up continuously since January 24, 1991, over 20 years.
How the jury came to convict the teenager with no previous criminal record is complicated, but according to Carrillo’s attorney, civil rights lawyer Ron Kaye, much of it reportedly hinged on the actions of a Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff named Craig Ditsch, now retired, an admitted member of the Lynwood “Vikings,” and a close supporter—according to Ditsch —of former LASD undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who described his mentor’s controversial use of the term “gray area” as proactive policing.
“This settlement should send a loud and clear message to law enforcement throughout LA County that such manipulation of the evidence will not ever be tolerated,” said Kaye. “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.”
At approximately 7 p.m. on Friday, January 18, 1991, six African American teenagers, ages 15 to 18, were clustered near to the curb at the front of a house in the 4000 block of Lugo Avenue in Lynwood, California, when one of the boys’ dads, Donald Sarpy, walked toward the kids from his nearby house, intending to talk to his sone and the others. As Mr. Sarpy walked, a car approached and drove slowly past the group. Then, when the car had travelled a few houses away, the front seat passenger leaned out of the car’s right front window, his arm outstretched as he turned back toward the group, a in his hand. He fired several times. One of the bullets hit Donald Sarpy, who died several hours later at the hospital.
At the time when Frank Sarpy was murdered, Franky Carrillo was a tenth grader attending Schurr high school in Montebello, and living with his father and siblings in Maywood, California.
Before the move to Maywood a year before, Carrillo’s family lived in Lynwood, which had become increasingly gang-ridden. By the time Franky Carrillo hit middle school, he was at fringes of one of Lynwood’s main gangs called the Young Crowd. Carrillo wasn’t a member. He was never jumped into the gang. He had no tattoos—gang related and otherwise, and he had never been convicted of even the most minor criminal conduct. But he was friends with some of the actual gang members whom he’d known since elementary school. Due to those friendships, and where he lived, he was viewed as affiliated with the Young Crowd, by some. At one point, he was assaulted and stabbed by so-called enemy gang members. Another time, according to Carrillo, when he and a friend were riding their bikes, a sheriff’s deputy asked to photograph each of the boys. Carrillo’s image would later be put in a book containing photos of possible Young Crowd gang members.
These and other incidents led Carrillo’s dad to decide that he needed to get his kids away from Lynwood and its gang dangers, so moved to nearby Maywood. After the move, Franky went to school without fear of being jumped. “It was a brand new life, life,” he said.
But, then, back in Lynwood, Donald Sarpy was killed.
When the first LA County sheriff’s deputies showed up at the scene minutes after the shooting, all but two of the six victim witnesses were gone. The two remaining witnesses, one of them Sarpy’s son, were interviewed at the site of the shooting. The other four were identified and interviewed by phone shortly afterwards.
According to the initial police report, when the teenage witnesses first spoke to police, none of the six could give a useful description of the shooter past the fact that the person was a young Hispanic male. But four of the witnesses reported hearing one of the kids in the drive-by car yell something as shots were fired, like “Fuck N-Hood,” and possibly also, “Young Crowd Locos.” The purported shouted messages made sense because, at the time, there was a lethal rivalry between the two gangs. Yet, although the kids were “upset” and appeared to be trying hard to be helpful, according to the subsequent police report, other than those few details, the boys could produce little else. It had been dead dark at the time of the shooting, and the shooter was several houses away.
Hours later still, after 1 a.m., five of the adolescent witnesses were taken to the LA County Sheriff’s Lynwood sub-station where they were interviewed for a second time. (The sixth witness was, for some reason, was not re-interviewed until months later.) When the first four ended their interviews, they had produced no better picture of the suspect than they had earlier in the evening with the patrol deputies.
The last of the five, however, a 16-year-old named Scott Turner, was interviewed around 2:15 a.m. by LA sheriff’s deputy Craig Ditsch, who was a member of Lynwood’s Operation Safe Streets unit, or OSS— the gang enforcement unit. Ditsch reportedly knew Turner from previous gang-related cases and various street contacts in the Lynwood area.
Turner’s interview was also different from that of the other eyewitnesses in that he was the only person shown photographs at the Lynwood sheriff’s station that night.
At first Ditch showed Turner a “gang book” filled with photos of teenagers and young men who police believed were members of Young Crowd, or might have some affiliation. Turner would tell Carrillo’s defense attorneys years later that, at Ditsch’s urging, he picked several photos of people who might look like the shooter—even though, along with the others, he’d said earlier that he couldn’t really see the shooter. According to Turner, after he picked each of the photos, Deputy Ditsch told him he was incorrect, that this or that selection could not be the gunman. Finally, Turner put his finger on Francisco Carrillo’s photo. This time, according to Turner, Ditsch’s reaction was different. The OSS deputy told Turnerthat his choice was the right one.
“After guiding Mr. Turner to select Mr. Carrillo’s photograph,” attorney Kaye wrote a civil court document,
“…Ditsch presented a six-pack to Mr. Turner with Mr. Carrillo’s photograph in position number one. Having already been led by Defendant Ditsch to select Mr. Carrillo’s photograph from the hundreds of photographs in the gang book, Mr. Turner picked up the cue, and selected Mr. Carrillo’s photograph in the number one position as
the perpetrator of the Sarpy murder.”
According to Carrillo’s civil complaint, the six-pack that featured his photo was pre-existing in that it had been assembled for an an earlier case in which a witness testified at preliminary hearing that another Lynwood OSS deputy named Loy Luna urged her to pick Carrillo as the perpetrator, that he was a member of the Young Crowd. On the stand, the witness told the judge that she could not, in fact, ID Carrillo.
In his subsequent police report, Deputy Ditsch stated that Turner had independently chosen the photo of Carillo.
As for Turner himself, when he saw his friends again, he told them about Ditsch and that he’d picked out the right photo and the shooter was Carrillo. The remaining five witnesses were not shown the six-pack until months later, shortly before the trial. By then, they too were convinced they’d seen the shooter and that he was Franky Carrillo..
Franky Carrillo was tried for the crime twice. The first trial ended with a “hopelessly deadlocked” jury. Before trial number two began, Scott Turner told prosecutors that his identification of Carrillo had been “a mistake” and that he could no longer testify against him.
According to Turner, when Ditsch heard that Turner was recanting, he cornered the teenager outside the courtroom, and threatened him, telling Turner there would be “negative consequences….once Mr. Turner was on the street,” if he took back his identification of Carrillo.
When Turner got on the stand, he ignored Ditsch and told the jury that he couldn’t ID the shooter. Two decades later, he told attorneys helping Carrillo that he was fearful of retaliation from Deputy Ditsch and other members of the Lynwood Sheriff’s sub-station, so did not tell the jury that Ditsch had told him that Mr. Carrillo was the shooter.
Although Turner recanted in the second trial, the other five witness stuck with their story that Franky Carrillo shot Donald Sarpy. The jury found Carrillo guilty of murder and six counts of attempted murder.
While in Folsom Prison, Carrillo did what he could to make his time inside count for something. He was part of The Blind Project- an organization which transcribed regular print into Braille for people without sight, worked in the Optical Department where he would refurbish used eye glasses that were then provided to those need, worked in the prison’s Youth Diversion Program.
And he wrote many, many letters—to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, to the California Office of the Inspector General, Innocence Projects in both California and New York, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the ACLU of Southern California, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a list of private attorneys. After fifteen years, the writing paid off. An assistant state public defender named Ellen Eggers agreed to look at his case. For the next five years, on evenings, weekends, and days off Eggers, and attorneys she recruited to help, pulled apart the case and tracked down the various eyewitnesses, who were now in their 30s.
At the subsequent Habeas hearing, five out of the six—including Donald Sarpy’s son—recanted their original testimony in front of Judge Bacigalupo. The sixth invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Scott Turner apologized to Carrillo from the stand, according to Scott Wood, a Loyola Law School professor with a specialty in restorative justice, who was one of the lawyers who signed on to help Eggers with Carrillo’s case and wrote about how the experience affected him. “I never got a chance to apologize to Frank or apologize to his family..… It’s not right.,” Turner said. “So I’m standing up … [to] I say I was wrong. And, you know, I’m sorry, Frank. I apologize.”
Carrillo replied right away. “I forgive you. I forgive you, Scott.”
After his release from prison Franky Carrillo enrolled at Loyola Marymount University and graduated this June his Bachelor of Arts degree. “I needed to take hold of my future and follow my heart,” he wrote in an essay for LMU Magazine last summer when he was headed into his senior year. At Loyola, Carrillo fell in love with a woman, and last year the couple had a baby. Since graduation, the once-incarcerated man has been active criminal justice reform work. Most recently, he has been among those leading the charge to abolish the death penalty in the state of California through the passage of Prop 62.
As for Craig Ditsch, while Carillo was serving time at Folsom, he remained with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department until his retirement at the rank of lieutenant. He and other deputies maintain that Ditsch did not in any way improperly influence Scott Turner.
Ditsch—-and Loy Luna, who was also named in Carrillo’s civil lawsuit—were named multiple times in the huge and influential class action lawsuit of 1990, Thomas, et al v. the County of Los Angeles, about which both a U.S. District Court Judge, and the 9th Circuit Court of appeals wrote as a finding of fact:
“The actions of many deputies working in the Lynwood sub-station are motivated by racial hostility; these deputies regularly disregard the civil rights of individuals they have sworn to protect. Many of the incidents which brought about this motion involved a group of Lynwood area deputies who are members of a neo-Nazi, white supremacist gang—the Vikings—which exists with the knowledge of departmental policy makers.”
Last Tuesday, in the letter to the LA County Board of directors recommending a settlement of the Carrillo case, Jonathan McCaverty of County Counsel wrote, “due to the risks and uncertainties of litigation, a reasonable settlement at this time will avoid further litigation costs, therefore a full and final settlement in the amount of $10,100,000 is recommended.
In a “Corrective Action Plan” attached to the settlement, the county asked for remedial changes in department policy, essentially to attempt to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
Thus on March 21, 2016 the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Field Operation Support Services disseminated [a] newly written department policy related to suspect identifications, photographic arrays, and “admonishment procedures.”
The report also states that, “…due to the fact that both involved deputy sheriffs are no longer employees of the Department (for unrelated reasons), the incident was not investigated by representatives of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs DepartrnenPs Internal Affairs Bureau.”
Carrillo’s attorney, Ron Kaye sums up the matter of retired LASD lieutenant Craig Ditsch very differently: “This deputy stole my client’s youth by coercing a 15-year-old witness to pick Franky out a line-up, even though he admitted he could never identify the shooter of the drive-by on the night of the crime.”