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
On the morning of Friday, April 7, in a hushed downtown courtroom and with a bespectacled judge looking on intently, state-prison lifer Joey Garcia confessed to a murder he said he’d committed some two decades before.
Tall and broad, with a shaved head and a glowering frown, Garcia‘s 19 years in prison seemed evident from his heavy jowls and his slow, watchful demeanor. He’d been convicted in 1981 of murder in the second degree and has been incarcerated ever since, but this was a separate crime -- one for which another man is now serving a life sentence.
The victim was Jesse Porras, 19 years old, a member of a rival gang. Garcia said he never knew Porras‘ name. What doomed him, Garcia said, was the sports jersey he wore bearing the number “1.” That was the insignia of Primera Flats, rivals of Garcia’s Third Street Gang on L.A.‘s Eastside. And that was enough to prompt Garcia and two accomplices to jump Porras in broad daylight and beat him to death. “We were at war,” Garcia explained simply.
Sitting across from Garcia, shackled at the table normally reserved for the defense, was Jose Luis Frutis, his face deeply lined, his dark hair swept back and streaked with gray. Frutis was convicted of killing Porras in 1982 but has always protested his innocence. He listened to the confession stoically, as if afraid to break the spell Garcia was under.
In a case that foreshadowed the Rampart scandal, Frutis has insisted since his arrest that he was framed by officers from Central Bureau CRASH after he was shot during an interrogation. Superior Court Judge William Pounders agreed to hear the case after Frutis’ attorney, Antonio Rodriguez, presented a signed declaration from Garcia. Pounders will hear further testimony later this month, but Garcia‘s appearance last week was the first time he made his confession in a court of law.
During court proceedings that lasted about an hour before Garcia took the stand, attorney Rodriguez requested that cameras be barred for fear the news coverage might reach the cellblocks of a state penitentiary. That could earn Garcia the dangerous tag of snitch, as one of Garcia’s alleged accomplices in the Porras slaying is doing time for yet another murder. Pounders denied the request.
Rodriguez knew he was dealing with a reluctant witness. After confessing to a fellow inmate in 1995, then to prison staff the following year, and finally to Rodriguez in a sworn affidavit in March 1998, Garcia reversed course when interviewed by Deputy District Attorney Timothy Browne, who had traveled to Soledad to investigate. He‘d made up his confession, Garcia told Browne, because Frutis had promised to pay $10,000 into Garcia’s prison account. That left Judge Pounders to decide the weighty question: Was Garcia lying when he confessed, or when he recanted that confession?
Judge Pounders asked Rodriguez to brief him on the circumstances of the original arrest. Frutis had been picked up in December of 1980 for questioning in connection with the Porras slaying, Rodriguez explained, and taken to the offices of Central Bureau CRASH in the early days of the anti-gang unit. There he was handcuffed to a chair and interviewed by detectives Steven Miller and Albert Gonzalez. “It was a good-cop, bad-cop routine,” attorney Rodriguez explained, with Miller taking the role of bad cop. “Miller became agitated, angry . . . suddenly he pulled out a gun and shot him in the chest.”
Frutis was hospitalized three days for treatment of the gunshot wound, but was never released from custody. Two weeks later he was charged as one of the three men who beat Porras to death in broad daylight. No accomplices were ever named, and despite the objections of Frutis and his attorney at the time, Miller and Gonzalez remained the investigators on the case. That represented bias, Rodriguez said, as the LAPD and the justice system would more easily ignore the shooting of a guilty man. The gun had gone off by accident, the detectives explained, and during Frutis‘ trial the judge refused to admit the station-house shooting.
Judge Pounders had already indicated that he would not review the entire story of Frutis’ incarceration, and returned to the business of Garcia‘s appearance. Pounders wanted to make sure that Garcia grasped that he didn’t have to say anything at all. “Do you understand the implications inherent in a second crime?” the judge asked. “You understand that you could be prosecuted and face the death penalty?”
“Yes,” Garcia answered.
“You have a right to any attorney. You understand you‘re not compelled to make a statement,” the judge asked.
“Yeah,” Garcia said. “I understand that.”
With that, Pounders turned the witness over to Rodriguez.
Garcia started by answering Rodriguez cautiously, obliquely, avoiding direct reference to Frutis or himself. Did he recall his confession to prison guard Wayne Garnett? “Yes.” What did he tell Garnett? “I told him [Frutis] was innocent of the crime, that I knew for a fact he was innocent.”
“Did you tell him you were personally involved in the crime?”
“Yes, I did.”
Rodriguez then asked Garcia about the second confession, made to a second member of the Soledad staff. “After she read me my rights,” Garcia recalled, “I went ahead and told her about what I knew to be the facts of the case, and she wrote it down.”