By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
District Attorney Gil Garcetti is scrambling to clear dozens of defendants wrongly accused by the LAPD‘s Rampart Division, but his office continues to take a hard line against Jose Luis Frutis, convicted of murder in 1982 after being shot in the chest during a station-house interrogation.
Frutis, then a member of the Third Street Gang in East Los Angeles, contends that he was framed for the 1980 slaying of Jesse Porras, a member of a rival gang. His appeal, on grounds that the trial court wrongly excluded evidence of his in-custody shooting by the officers who investigated his case, was dismissed in 1986.
The case was resurrected when Joey Garcia, a fellow gang member doing a life term himself for a separate murder, confessed to the crime. Garcia has now recanted that confession, further clouding an already murky picture.
Frutis has been imprisoned ever since his December 1980 arrest for the slaying of Porras, a gang member who had the bad fortune of being cornered alone and unarmed. Porras was accosted on November 18, 1980, by members of the Third Street Gang in broad daylight near First Street School in East Los Angeles. Two assailants beat Porras to death with a bat and a steel pipe, then fled the scene in a car driven by a third gang member after several passers-by intervened. Frutis was the only person arrested for the murder, and was convicted on the strength of two witnesses placing him at the scene. He has always maintained his innocence.
After reviewing Garcia’s confession last October, Superior Court Judge William Pounders ordered the district attorney to reopen the case. In December, Deputy District Attorney J. Timothy Browne answered in court papers that Garcia fabricated his confession when Frutis promised to pay him $10,000, and that no further inquiry into the case is warranted.
Frutis‘ attorney, Antonio Rodriguez, is preparing a rebuttal asserting that Frutis never made any offer to Garcia. Rodriguez contends that Garcia told the truth in his confession, and changed his mind only after prosecutors warned him that he could face the death penalty if he stuck by his new story.
Whatever the circumstances of his confession and withdrawal, Garcia’s conflicting statements now present a daunting ethical riddle: Which of the two statements issued by this gangbanger and convicted killer is to be believed? At stake is the freedom of a man already injured by police and incarcerated two decades for a crime he says he never committed. Judge Pounders will ponder the question at a hearing scheduled for February 22.
Addressing the Rampart scandal this week, District Attorney Garcetti stated that his office is “equally concerned with the rights of the innocent” as with prosecuting offenders. Yet to Deputy D.A. Timothy Browne, the Frutis appeal remains an open-and-shut question. “The star witness recanted,” Browne said in a brief telephone interview with the Weekly. “That‘s pretty fatal to the case.”
In court papers, Browne explained that Garcia now says he made his confession after Frutis promised to pay him $10,000. “This declaration is fraudulent and was solicited . . . with a promise of payment . . . which renders it worthless,” Browne wrote.
Garcia did not produce just one confession but several. He spoke first, in February of 1996, to prison counselor Jolee Selvidge, videotaped a two-hour interview with corrections Lieutenant Paul A. Gulley the following April, and then recorded still another statement for guard Wayne Garnett. Garcia reiterated his confession once more in March of 1998 in a signed statement he provided to Frutis’ attorney. That statement, along with a signed statement by Garnett, formed the basis for Judge Pounders‘ decision to review the case.
Browne addresses these collectively in his court filing, dismissing them as “the confession binge Mr. Garcia went on after being promised $10,000.” He writes that Frutis never paid Garcia, and says that Garcia “indicated that he is having second thoughts about this scheme because of his fear of the death penalty.”
Browne goes on to attack Frutis’ case because it omits the fact that Frutis and Garcia were confined to the same prison, and that Garcia told a D.A.‘s investigator, and told Gulley in the taped confession, that he’d reviewed the transcripts and other documents from Frutis‘ 1981 trial. “The petition is silent on how this information came to light,” Browne writes of the confession. “One logical suspicion is that it came from [Frutis], who would have some idea what was in Garcia’s statement since he helped manufacture it.”
Browne‘s partisan tone is matched by his presentation of only some of the facts. So persuasive did he find Garcia’s recanting that Browne did not bother to interview prison officials Gulley or Garnett, as both were on vacation when Browne and his investigator visited Soledad last November. Nor did Browne obtain the videotape of Garcia‘s confession to Gulley.
A review of the available documents, and of the videotaped confession, shows that Browne also omitted important elements of the case in the papers he filed with the court. For example, he fails to present Garcia’s initial explanation for making his confession. In her interview with Browne and his investigator, Soledad counselor Selvidge said Garcia told her, “He had gotten into religion and it was bothering him. And he seemed to be, you know, like he had given it a lot of thought.”