In 2011, after 35 years as a lawyer, I was graced to witness an extraordinary occasion of restorative justice that took place in a Compton courtroom.
Background: In 1991, Hispanic and Black gangs in Southeast Los Angeles were at war. On a January night, several Black teens were hanging out in front of one of the boy’s homes. When the boy’s father came outside to call him in, a car rolled by, a passenger leaned out and fired two shots, and the father dropped, fatally wounded.
That night, Los Angeles County sheriffs questioned each of the boys hoping to find an eyewitness. Although none of the boys could identify the shooter, one sheriff recognized among them Scott Turner, a gang member. Intent upon a quick arrest, the sheriff pressured Turner to identify one of the Mexican American boys in a photo line-up.
The Lynwood Sheriffs had been photographing neighborhood kids for years, filling ever-growing “gang books.” Some years before, sheriffs had stopped Franky Carrillo while he was riding his bike, snapped his picture and added it to a gang book. Now, on the night of the drive-by murder, a sheriff pressured Scott Turner to choose the picture of Carrillo in a “six-pack” line-up, falsely telling him that Carrillo was a young gang member “making his bones.” Adding to the pressure, the sheriff commented that Turner himself was suspected of a recent crime. Not surprisingly, Turner cooperated, picking Carrillo’s picture from the “six- pack.”
Based on Scott Turner’s accusation alone, 17-year-old Franky Carrillo was arrested and held for trial. During the ensuing months, Turner talked to the other boys and, at trial, all of them identified Carrillo as the shooter. The jury verdict was guilty of murder and attempted murder. Carrillo was sentenced to consecutive life terms.
In 2006, after 15 years of incarceration with no hope of parole, Carrillo’s prayers for help were answered when Ellen Eggers, an assistant state public defender, agreed to look at his case. Despite a fulltime job, she represented Carrillo pro bono, through six years of nights and days off, helped by lawyers she recruited.
In addition to bringing to light the identity of the real killer, Eggers tracked down the supposed eye-witnesses, men now in their late 30s — all, at first, uncooperative. After years of relentless phone calls and meetings, Eggers convinced these men to come to court and tell the truth. New evidence in hand, she and her co-counsel successfully petitioned the court to hold a Habeas Corpus hearing in March 2011. Essentially, the court agreed to re-try the case.
At the heart of the hearing was testimony from the recanting men, fragile witnesses subject to tough cross-examination: “Is your memory better now than it was 20 years ago?”
When Scott Turner took the stand, the tension in the courtroom was palpable. Turner’s voice was clear: “Frank didn’t do it, and I believe this with all my heart. I know he didn’t do it… I made a mistake, and everybody ran with it.”
After explaining how as a young, vengeful boy he had been motivated to lie, Turner turned to face Carrillo. Despite clear court rules against witness-party dialogue, he spoke directly to his victim who had been wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years.
“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, “I forgive you. I forgive you, Scott.”
I was present in the courtroom that day. I felt my eyes well up as I witnessed this rare moment of Restorative Justice. A tenacious public defender exercising due process of law put Scott Turner in the witness chair; but his apology and Franky Carrillo’s forgiveness were works of mercy. Restorative Justice — the healing connection between a victim and an offender with open hearts.