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Man wrongly imprisoned freed, becomes college student

February 2, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Just months ago, 37-year-old Frankie Carrillo was walking the halls of a California state prison; now he's walking to class.

A student at Loyola Marymount University, Carrillo is auditing courses to prove himself, hoping to become a full time student in the fall.

"I've always dreamed of going to college and I'm grateful that although I went through what I went through, that desire and dream never faded," Carrillo said.

Carrillo and his dream survived 20 years behind bars. At 16 years old, he was arrested and eventually convicted of murder for the drive by shooting of a Lynwood man, despite his father's testimony that he was at home with his son on the night of the shooting.

"There I was in cuffs, thinking this will end up on someone's desk that will review this, and it will be over soon," Carrillo said.

But it took 15 years of writing letters to dozens of attorneys before Carrillo got the legal help he needed, and another five years to get his conviction overturned.

Scott Wood, director of Loyola Law School's Center for Restorative Justice, and one of the many lawyers who helped Carrillo win his freedom, said Carrillo was convicted on the testimony of six witnesses who later recanted their version of what happened the night of the shooting.

"The prosecutor has said publically and on the record that Frankie Carrillo was a totally innocent man, and he knows the most about this case from the prosecution's side," Wood said.

Last March, Carrillo walked out of prison a free man. The district attorney's office dismissed the case in April.

But the bigger story may be how a teenager, wrongly accused of a heinous crime and ripped from the father he adored, managed to grow up in prison and still maintain a positive outlook on life.

"I think one of the mysteries of all this is the fact that prison didn't destroy my soul and I give my dad a lot of credit for that," Carrillo said.

Despite his incarceration, Carrillo has few regrets. But he wishes his father, who died recently, could have been alive to see his release from prison. Still, he has made many friends along the way, including Wood, who has taken Carrillo into his home and paved the way for him to attend classes at LMU.

"I think he's the kind of guy that draws people to him," Wood said. "He's got a lot of people around him who love him, and that sustains him."

Besides attending classes at LMU, Carrillo volunteers with Death Penalty Focus, a non-profit group that supports overturning the death penalty in California. For them, Carrillo tells his story as evidence that the justice system doesn't always get it right.