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.”
So, what did he tell her? “I told her how the murder took place and what led up to it. What was used and how it happened.”
Rodriguez prodded one more time, and Garcia finally told the story. “It was lunch time. All the kids were out on the playground,” at First Street Elementary, a schoolyard that overlooked the scene. Scores of children witnessed what happened next, along with several adult bystanders.
Garcia had been Christmas shopping at Zody’s department store with his wife. He recalled wearing his best clothes — beige pants, a brown shirt, a black vest — because the couple was planning to go out that afternoon. But as they walked down the street, Garcia spotted Porras, and Porras spotted him. A fellow Third Streeter, whom Garcia knew by his moniker Alley-Oop, had been murdered just days before, and Garcia was hungry for revenge.
Just then, two other Third Street gangbangers drove by. Garcia testified that he flagged them down, told his wife to meet him at a nearby neighborhood center and jumped in the car. They went up the street, turned around and came back for Porras. There was a bat in the car — “Not a full bat, a small one, a kid‘s bat” — and Garcia grabbed it before he and an accomplice jumped out.
Porras saw his assailants coming but was quickly cornered. He was scrambling over a low retaining wall and into a small yard when Garcia caught up to him. “I hit him in the legs a few times so he couldn’t get away,” Garcia testified. Then, “We beat him everywhere. We smashed him pretty good.” His partner, whom Garcia did not name, wrenched a pipe out of the ground and joined in the fatal beating. An autopsy found that Porras died from multiple blows to the head, some severe enough to fracture the base of the skull.
According to witnesses, the beating continued until a lady nearby screamed, “Stop it! You‘re killing him!” Finally, some workers at a nearby meatpacking plant, who’d been sitting on the corner eating lunch, came running up, yelling. “So we took off,” Garcia told the court. “We threw the bat and the pipe into the sewer.”
After a noon break, Deputy District Attorney Browne set out to undermine Garcia and his confession. From the outset of Frutis‘ habeas corpus appeal, filed last May, the D.A.’s Office has vigorously opposed the bid to reopen the case — as too late and as legally inadequate. Even after Judge Pounders ordered the D.A. to answer Frutis‘ petition, Browne did not bother to obtain the videotape of the confession, and he relied on Al Gonzalez, one of the two original detectives on the case, to do field surveys that were introduced at the hearing Friday.
Of course, Garcia himself gave Browne ample reason for doubt last December. In a taped interview conducted with Browne and an investigator at Mule Creek State Prison, where Garcia had been moved once his involvement in the Frutis case became known, Garcia declared that his confession was a sham, one he entered into for money. Garcia added that he never read the declaration of his guilt that was filed with the court; he said he simply signed it and mailed it to attorney Rodriguez.
During his examination of Garcia Friday, however, Rodriguez presented Garcia with his annotated draft of the same declaration, and Garcia testified that he had in fact read the document and made amendments in his own handwriting. Later, when Browne asked Garcia if he had told him directly that he’d concocted his confession, Garcia was downright hostile in response. “I lied to you,” Garcia told the prosecutor.
“Are you lying today?” Browne shot back.
“No,” Garcia said.
Rather than press a frontal challenge to Garcia‘s motives, Browne worked to underscore the contradictions that cropped up between Garcia’s several statements, made on different occasions to different prison staff members. On one occasion, Browne noted, Garcia said he and his wife were riding in the car when he spotted Porras; later, he said he was walking with her when the car cruised by. And one early account had Frutis shot in the leg by the Paramount police — a department that does not exist — as opposed to the actual facts of the in-custody shooting, which were reflected in subsequent accounts.
Further, Browne laid groundwork to suggest a conspiracy between Garcia and Frutis to produce a bogus confession. Garcia and Frutis were in the same gang; Browne elicited from Garcia that he‘d known Frutis for 10 years before the beating took place. And he pressed Garcia on his comment during the prison interview that he’d reviewed transcripts of the case, thus learning the details that Garcia recited in court. Rodriguez contended in court papers that Frutis never had his transcripts while at Soledad, and in court Friday, Garcia said he‘d been referring to a brief summary, and not a transcript at all.
Toward the end of his cross-examination, Browne took another tack. He asked Garcia if he wasn’t concerned about possibly facing the death penalty as a result of his testimony. “I don‘t care one bit,” Garcia said with a bleak fatalism. “All I care about is the truth.”
The balance of testimony Friday was from another longtime prisoner at Soledad, Juan de la Mora, the man to whom Garcia purportedly first broached the idea of atoning for his murder by making a confession that might set Frutis free. Short and energetic, with a heavy mustache, de la Mora is reputed to be something of a jail-yard preacher. He told the court that Garcia began to talk to him about God.
De la Mora testified that he first heard of the case after Frutis was transferred to Soledad in 1994. He said Garcia pointed Frutis out on the exercise yard, and told him that Frutis was innocent of the crime for which he was doing time. De la Mora said he took particular interest after he learned of the police shooting that Frutis had endured — “I said to myself, ’That‘s a little far out.’ So I had to check it out.”
De la Mora said he too had decided to testify despite the danger. “I could be killed,” he said. “It‘s a very serious matter.”
Close to a dozen members of Frutis’ extended family looked on from the gallery. As the testimony unfolded, two nieces took turns attending a baby in a carriage in the hallway outside. During a break in the proceedings, Frutis‘ mother, Irma Madero, said she’d never stopped pressing for a new inquiry during the 20 years her son was in prison.
“He was home with his wife and kids and me” the night of the Porras murder, Madero insisted. Frutis was 21 at the time, an unemployed gang member with several arrests for petty crimes. Madero said the events engulfing her son unfolded like a bad dream. First, Frutis disappeared for three days. Then Madero received a phone call from the hospital, where Frutis reported he had been shot during a police interview. Two weeks later, she learned he‘d been charged with murder. Her son never returned home again.
Determined to see him exonerated, she corresponded with Frutis, solicited attorneys and relayed new developments. Asked how it felt to see him win a court hearing, Madero said, “I’m glad they‘re finally reopening the case. I also feel unhappy — 20 years later, he’s still being held for something he‘s not guilty of.”