Death Penalty Focus empowers the exonerated to become advocates for a better justice system. We work with those who have been convicted of serious crimes they did not commit, and amplify their voices in the debate over the death penalty.
The risk of executing an innocent is one of the most important reasons many people oppose capital punishment. Mistakes may happen, but at least an innocent person can be released from prison–execution is the only irreversible punishment. Because California’s death penalty is so hopelessly plagued by delays and dysfunction, there have only been a few death-row exonerations. Most innocent death row prisoners die of old age or natural causes before they can receive a fair trial or present new evidence. DPF’s Justice Advocates have together served more than 100 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. If they had received death sentences under an “effective” system of capital punishment, they may not be alive to share their stories today.
The Justice Advocates may be available to speak to a group or at an event in your area. Please see below for more details on the team members and their availability.
Gary grew up in Louisiana during a time of racial backlash. One day, as his school bus passed by demonstrators throwing rocks, a shot was fired, killing a 13-year-old named Timothy Weber. The police questioned all of the black students on the bus, and, though witnesses say Gary was beaten, he refused to confess. Based on virtually no evidence--a gun prosecutors claimed was the murder weapon mysteriously appeared and disappeared during the trial--he was arrested and charged as an adult with first-degree murder. He was then found guilty by an all-white jury and sentenced to death in 1975. He was the youngest inmate on death row.
In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court found Louisiana’s death penalty law unconstitutional, and ordered the state to commute its death sentences to life without parole. Gary’s sentence was commuted to a life without parole, and he was transferred to the general prison population, where he led several rehabilitation initiatives over the next four decades. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to sentence minors to life without parole and applied its decision retroactively. Offered a plea-bargain by prosecutors in order to avoid another trial, Gary agreed to plead "guilty" to manslaughter in exchange for his freedom, and subsequently was sentenced to 21 years. Having already served 41 years, was released from prison in April 2016, and has since moved to California where he now continues his work by advocating against the death penalty and policies that support mass incarceration.
Gary is available to speak in Southern California, particularly around the Los Angeles area.
Francisco "Franky" Carrillo, Jr., was sentenced to life in prison in 1992 for a fatal drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. He was 16 years old at the time. Franky maintained his innocence through two trials and 20 years in prison, and in 2011 his conviction was overturned after the eyewitnesses who had identified him as the shooter recanted. Five years after his release, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors awarded him $10.1 million to settle a lawsuit he filed against the LA Sheriff’s Department for his wrongful conviction. Franky went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Loyola Marymount University, and now works as a justice reform advocate, serving on several boards, including Death Penalty Focus, Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, the Northern California Innocence Project at Santa Clara Law School, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative.
Franky is available to speak at events in Southern California, particularly around the Los Angeles area.
In 1986 Gloria Killian was convicted and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison for murder and conspiracy she had no part in. The only evidence against her was the testimony of a co-defendant, who had made a secret deal with the prosecution in exchange for a reduced sentence. She served ten years, but after filing a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus, the agreement between her co-defendant and the prosecution was discovered. Her co-defendant ultimately admitted that much of his testimony had been false, including his accusation that Killian was the "mastermind" of the crime. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed her conviction, and she was released in 2002. After her release, Killian co-authored a book, "Full Circle," about her experiences, and became executive director of the Action Committee for Women in Prison in Southern California.
Gloria is available to speak in Southern California, particularly in the Inland Valley region between the Inland Empire and Los Angeles.
When Bruce Lisker was 17 years old, in 1983, he came home to find his mother murdered. Bruce was arrested for the crime based on incorrect testimony from the detective on the case. Bruce was then convicted of second degree murder in 1985, in part because of false information provided by a jailhouse snitch in the L.A. County Jail. He was sentenced to 16 years to life in prison and served 26 and a half years for a crime he did not commit. Throughout his imprisonment, Bruce maintained his innocence, and through the efforts of private investigators, attorneys, an LAPD officer who believed him, and an investigative series of articles in the LA Times, his conviction was vacated in August 2009 by a U.S. District Court judge, who found he had been convicted on false evidence and ineffective assistance of counsel. Prosecutors moved to dismiss the charges, and Bruce was a free man a month later. In January 2016, Bruce’s wrongful conviction lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles was settled for $7.6 million.
Bruce lives just north of Los Angeles, and is available to speak in Southern California.
Bill Richards came home from work in San Bernardino County in August 1993 and discovered the body of his wife, Pamela, who had been murdered. One month later, Bill was arrested and charged with the crime. After three mistrials, two because of hung juries, one because of problematic jury selection, Bill was found guilty in his fourth trial in 1997, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Some of the most "damning" evidence presented at his trial was testimony from a dentist that a bite mark on Pamela’s hand matched Bill’s teeth, a forensic method that has since been proven extremely unreliable. After Bill’s conviction was initially upheld in 2001, the California Innocence Project investigated the case, and a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed, noting that DNA tests the murder weapons found at the scene of the crime could not be a match for Bill. In addition, the bite mark evidence was not reliable because it was determined that the autopsy photograph was distorted, and the dentist who originally testified about the bite mark recanted his testimony, saying the bite mark could not have matched Bill’s teeth. A San Bernardino County Superior Court judge vacated Bill’s conviction in 2009, but the prosecution appealed, and in 2012, the California Supreme Court reversed the ruling on the grounds that the dentist’s testimony didn’t meet the state’s legal definition of “false evidence,” thereby precluding Bill from mounting a post-conviction challenge. The California legislature then enacted the “Bill Richards Bill,” which amended the criminal code to include the definition of “false evidence” as the “opinions of experts that have either been repudiated by the expert who originally provided the opinion at a hearing or trial or that have been undermined by later scientific research or technological advances.” A new writ of habeas corpus was filed, and in May 2016, the California Supreme Court vacated Bill’s conviction. He was released from prison in June 2016, and a week later, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office finally dismissed the charges.
Bill lives in the Inland Empire, and is available to speak in Southern California.
Aaron Owens was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for two drug-related murders in Oakland in 1972 that he didn’t commit. The victims, Marie Collins and Stanley Bryant, were killed during what appeared to be a drug deal gone bad. Aaron and his co-defendant, Glenn Bailey, were convicted of the murders and sentenced to life in prison, based on the testimony of a friend of the victims, who was present during the murders. Insisting that he was innocent, Aaron befriended Bailey in prison, and after six years, Bailey finally told Aaron who his accomplice actually had been. Aaron contacted John Taylor, the prosecutor who had convicted him and who had gone into private practice, with the identity of Bailey’s partner, and Taylor began his own investigation. He discovered new evidence, including witnesses who testified that they had seen the actual accomplice in a car with Bailey before and after the murders. The actual accomplice bore a close physical resemblance to Aaron. The Alameda County District Attorney’s office had earlier re-opened the case, and when Taylor presented his evidence to the court, the same judge who had sentenced Aaron originally, overturned his sentence. Aaron was freed after spending eight years in prison. Aaron was convicted and sentenced during a period when California had eliminated the death penalty. He was told at his trial, that if the state could have executed him, he would have been sentenced to death instead.
Aaron lives in Stockton, and is available to speak in the San Joaquin Valley and in the San Francisco Bay Area.