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Judge Reopens Case

It predates the current Rampart scandal by more than a decade, but the case of Jose Luis Frutis, a gang member who was shot while handcuffed inside an LAPD interview room by a member of the CRASH anti-gang squad, has been ordered reopened.

Superior Court Judge William Pounders ordered the District Attorney‘s Office to present arguments on why he should not vacate Frutis’ conviction in a 1980 murder. Deputy District Attorney Timothy Browne was granted an extension until December to prepare his case.

While it does not involve the Rampart Division or any of the officers currently under investigation, the allegations in the Frutis case -- that he was assaulted while in custody of CRASH officers and sent to prison on trumped-up charges -- echo those made recently by former officer Rafael Perez.

Pounders issued his order on the strength of a 1996 jailhouse confession by Joey Garcia, a former L.A. gang member serving a life sentence for a separate murder. Garcia told a prison guard in a taped confession that he and two other men had committed the fatal assault, and that ”Frutis is completely innocent of the murder.“ The victim, Jesse Porras, was a member of a rival street gang.

There is corroborating evidence for Garcia‘s confession in the form of fingerprints lifted from the getaway car used in Porras’ November 18, 1980, murder. Garcia was at large at the time Porras was killed; he was arrested and jailed two weeks later in connection with a separate slaying for which he remains in prison to this day.

Judge Pounders cited only the Garcia confession as grounds for his order, but Frutis‘ attorney Antonio Rodriguez said he plans to argue other elements of the case as well, particularly relating to the conduct of the investigating officers.

Frutis was arrested in Hollenbeck Park in East Los Angeles the day after Christmas, 1980. He was taken to the Central Division CRASH unit on Sixth and Wall streets downtown, where he was handcuffed to a chair and interviewed by Detectives Albert Gonzales and Steven Miller. During the interrogation, according to subsequent depositions by Frutis and both detectives, Miller pulled his gun and shot Frutis in the chest. Miller testified that he shot Frutis by accident; Gonzales said he did not see the shooting.

Frutis was taken to County General Hospital, treated for his injuries, and then charged with the Porras murder. Despite the shooting, Gonzales and Miller remained the lead investigators in the case. Attorney Rodriguez argues that the detectives should have been pulled off the case, as they were prejudiced against Frutis -- especially after Frutis filed a claim for damages naming both detectives as defendants.

Rodriguez contends in court papers that the detectives never considered as a suspect the owner of the car Porras’ assailants used to flee the scene. They also failed to interview Garcia, despite the fact that his were the only set of identifiable fingerprints found inside the getaway car, according to the testimony of LAPD criminologist Frederick Banuelos. Instead, charges were brought against Frutis on the strength of two witnesses to the crime who identified Frutis from photos shown them by Detective Gonzales.

”They should have followed up, especially on the prints,“ Rodriguez said of the two detectives. ”I don‘t know how they were planning to handle this case, but once they shot this guy, the motive to see him rot in prison was there.“

Frutis was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to a term of 25 years to life. He is currently housed at Soledad State Prison. Frutis’ claim for damages stemming from the shooting was settled in his favor in 1988, but the city paid only $18,000, in part because as a lifer in the state prison system he could demonstrate little in the way of lost earnings.

According to Rodriguez, Detective Albert Gonzales may yet play a role in determining Frutis‘ fate. Standard LAPD policy calls for the original investigating officers to assist the D.A. when a case is reopened. In the Frutis case, Steven Miller resigned from the force in 1982. But Gonzales, who sat in the room when Miller shot Frutis but said he did not see what happened, remains a detective at the LAPD’s Central Division.

Gonzales said in September it was up to the District Attorney‘s Office whether he would participate in reviewing the Frutis case. Deputy D.A. Browne declined to comment on whether he would challenge Gonzales’ assignment. D.A. spokeswoman Victoria Pitkin said Browne has not yet called on the LAPD for assistance.

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