By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
"Do you know if they took photographs?" Miller was asked. "Yes." Did they take measurements?" "Yes . . . then after they determined the circumstances of the incident, then they left." Miller said he was never called up before a departmental panel to explain what happened; both he and Gonzales said nobody from Internal Affairs contacted them in connection with the shooting.
After Sergeant Kennerson’s visit, Gonzales said, he arranged for Frutis to be taken to County USC Medical Center, where he was treated for his injuries at the jail ward on the 13th floor. Frutis said in a deposition that it took 40 minutes before he received any medical attention; he said his treatment was delayed because the doctor insisted on seeing a police report containing some statement as to how he got injured.
Frutis said that he learned then the credibility problem that would haunt his case. When the doctor asked him directly how he’d been injured, Frutis explained he’d been shot while handcuffed and in custody. "You see," the doctor exclaimed, turning to the officers standing nearby. "That’s why you need a police report, because he could say whatever he wants."
Frutis then describes in his deposition being visited later that night by "four or five officers" who asked what had happened to him. "I told them that all I wanted was a polygraph and a lineup . . . to prove to them that, you know, I didn’t know nothing about this case."
According to Frutis, one officer responded, "We are going to make sure that you get one, because we don’t want to let an innocent man go to jail." Then another said, "Let me put some words in your mouth. This was an accident, and that’s all I’m going to write down."
Frutis was removed from the hospital to the county jail three days later and charged with the murder of Jesse Porras, a member of a rival street gang who was beaten to death by two assailants while a third waited in a car. Frutis was never again interviewed by the LAPD in connection with his shooting; nor was he allowed to stand in the police lineup that he felt would exonerate him in connection with the slaying.
In fact, it was Steven Miller, the detective who shot him, and his partner, Albert Gonzales, who were assigned to investigate the Porras case and who brought the charges against Frutis.
In March 1981, while still in custody awaiting trial, Frutis filed a claim against the LAPD seeking $1 million in damages stemming from the shooting. The attorney appealing Frutis’ case, Antonio H. Rodriguez, argues that Miller and Gonzales should have been removed from the case, asserting that the two had a conflict of interest and were motivated to pin the crime on Frutis. The damage claim was promptly denied.
When the criminal trial began the following December, the evidence consisted of two witnesses who identified Frutis on the basis of photographs presented to them by detectives Gonzales and Miller. The Defense attorney was barred from introducing the fact that Frutis had been shot, and from challenging the detectives’ methods.
Frutis alleged in court documents that the police had conducted only cursory examinations of key figures in the case, including the registered owner of the getaway car and Joey Garcia, a gangbanger later jailed for a separate murder, whose fingerprints were found inside the same vehicle. On January 13, 1982, after deliberating four days, a jury found Frutis guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 25 years to life, and has been incarcerated ever since.
The civil suit Frutis filed against the city remained on the books. With a sketchy employment history behind him and a life in jail in front of him, Frutis could expect only negligible monetary damages. The LAPD continued to maintain that the shooting had been an accident, and the city settled the case in September 1988. Frutis won a total of $18,000; after court costs and attorney fees, he was able to forward to his mother a check for $7,710.
Frutis’ story — and his life — lay dormant until an October evening in 1996. As he lay in his cell in Soledad state prison, drifting off to sleep, Frutis was approached by a prison guard named Wayne Garnett. As Frutis recalled in a deposition, "He asked me why I was in jail. I told him that he would not believe me. He said, ‘Try me.’"
Frutis played along: "I told him that I had not killed Jesse Porras, and I was doing time for a crime I did not commit." Garnett then told Frutis that another inmate, a twice-convicted killer named Joey Garcia, had confessed the murder to him.
Garcia, of course, was the man whose prints had turned up in the getaway vehicle. Garcia said in a subsequent declaration that he’d never been interviewed by police in connection with the Porras killing. Garcia also identified his two accomplices and said Frutis had nothing to do with the murder.
In a declaration made by Garnett to support Frutis’ motion for a new trial, the prison guard said Garcia had initially approached him and "asked me what . . . he should do if he knew that an inmate was doing time for a crime he had not committed and where he [Garcia] personally knew who had done it.