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Freed after 20 years wrongly imprisoned, Franky Carrillo hits the books

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Franky Carrillo walks the campus of Loyola Marymount University. His backpack is filled with books. His days are now filled with freedom.

Carrillo spent 20 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit.

While incarcerated, Carrillo earned his GED, but says he always dreamed of going to college. Now he is a 37-year-old, part-time freshman at LMU, and Friday marks the one-year anniversary of his newfound freedom.


He says he feels embraced by the staff and students: "The community of LMU has been great. It's become a sanctuary for me. It has this element of a wonderland."

But it has been a long and difficult road to this "wonderland."

Read NBCLosAngeles.com's story on Carrillo's long road to freedom

In 1991, Carrillo was 16 years old and living in Maywood with his father. He ran with a bad crowd, but had never been in any trouble.

"I definitely wasn't an angel but I definitely was not a murderer," he said.

It was early morning, Jan. 24, 1991, when Carrillo says 15 sheriff's deputies with guns drawn stormed through the front door.

"My dad said in Spanish and I said it in English: 'What's going on? Why?' And no one would say anything until eventually someone said, 'You know why.' And that's all they gave us," Carrillo said.

Carrillo says a "gang" of corrupt and racist Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies -- known as the "Lynwood Vikings" -- coerced and threatened key witnesses into identifying him in a photo lineup.

Carrillo was convicted of murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

When Carrillo talks about his time in prison, he uses words like "dehumanizing," "demoralizing" and "isolating." He served his last 10 years at Folsom State Prison, where he says he feared for his safety.

"I was very afraid, but I think being afraid was one of the elements that kind of kept me alive because it put me very, very aware of my surroundings," he said.

Web Extra: Franky Carrillo on Life Behind Bars

Carrillo says he did not know the victim of the murder, and that he was at home watching TV when the drive-by shooting happened. He knew a mistake had been committed; the system had gone astray and sent the "wrong guy" to prison.

Carrillo wanted to prove his innocence. He began a letter-writing campaign, begging lawyers and media outlets to listen to him.

Finally, someone heard him.

Carrillo calls Ellen Eggers an "angel" who "lives justice; it just radiates from her."

Eggers, an attorney, says she was convinced of Carrillo's innocence after meeting him just once, and not just because his earnestness and manners, but more importantly because Carrillo had evidence from the real shooter.

Eggers says he showed her "a six-page, scrawled-out, in-pencil, handwritten series of notes that basically is a confession to the drive-by murder that Frankie was convicted of."

Eggers works as a public defender in Northern California, specializing in death-penalty cases. Because Carrillo was a minor when he was convicted, he was sentenced to consecutive life terms, not the death penalty, and therefore did not fall under Eggers' prevue.

But the more she learned of Carrillo's circumstance, the more Eggers was determined to get him freed.

Web Extra: Eggers' Tireless Efforts to Free Carrillo

Eggers took the case pro-bono. She gave up weekends, summers and vacations to prove Carrillo's innocence. She says it was a consuming project.

"The experience of spending that much time with Frankie just bonded me with him so completely. I literally felt that I was locked up with him," she said.

One of Eggers' biggest challenges was that Carrillo's conviction hinged on eyewitnesses.

"There was no DNA in Franky's case. There wasn't even a gun. I mean, it was all just eye-witness testimony," Eggers said.

Eggers was advised that in order for Carrillo to have any chance of getting his conviction overturned, all of the witnesses would have to recant their testimony.

This was a daunting task.

She says the detailed hand-written notes that Carrillo had shown her were critical in getting the witnesses to realize that "a mistake had been made."

Ultimately every witness recanted their testimony.

During one moving and surreal moment in court, a key witness apologized to Carrillo, and Carrillo forgave him, said Eggers.

When witnesses change their original testimony, it is often met with skepticism -- which is why Eggers implored the judge see the exact spot where the teens claimed to be able to see Carrillo as the shooter.

"It is absolutely essential that you see for yourself, so you don't have to know whether the witnesses told the truth back then or they are telling the truth now. You need to see with your own eyes," Eggers told the judge.

The legal teams and the judge visited the crime scene on a night when the moon was similar to the night of the crime. Then they reenacted the drive-by shooting.

This field trip proved invaluable.

Eggers says it proved to the judge that there was "no way, physically possible that anyone standing on the curb could have identified anyone inside that car that was driving by."

On March 14, 2011, the District Attorney's office conceded the case and two days later, Carrillo walked out of prison.

His conviction was overturned. He was free.

Although part-time now, Carrillo has been accepted as a full-time LMU student for the fall of 2012.

LMU President David Burcham says when he first met Carrillo, he was impressed with his "dignity" and that the school felt an "obligation to assist."

"As you know, when a prosecution is brought against an individual in this state, it's brought on behalf of the people of the state of California. We thought that when a mistake is made, that the people of California have an obligation to try to help," Burcham said.

Web Extra: Why LMU Wants Carrillo as a Student

Carrillo is now busy building a full and meaningful future for himself. In addition to being a student, he is politically active and lobbies against the death penalty. He lectures on campus and at juvenile halls about his experiences. He volunteers at an orphanage in Tijuana.

His work at the orphanage clearly moves him. He refers to it as "a jail of little kids that had been forgotten about."

Carrillo tears up when he talks about the connection he feels when he holds a small child.

"It takes me back to a time in prison, where I myself was deprived from human emotion -- being deprived from just being human," Carrillo said.

Despite experiences that few people can imagine, Carrillo says he believes in justice and forgiveness, and hopes to help others in any way he can.

Web Extra: Franky Carrillo on Starting Over

While he was in prison, Carrillo missed out on a lot. His son was born. His father died. He says it hurts him to think that his father did not live to see him free.

Carrillo lost 20 years -- good years, the years when most people go to college and find love and build careers.

Meeting him in person, it is hard not to notice how good natured he is. Polite. Hopeful.

He says although many people would understand if he were angry and bitter, he just can't be.

"I'm not bitter. It defeats the purpose of wanting to be free. I could not imagine my life now as a free man having a frown on my face."

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