updated 3/16/2011 7:54:21 PM ET 2011-03-16T23:54:21

A man who spent 20 years in prison for a drive-by killing was embraced Wednesday by tearful family members and friends when he was freed from prison, days after most of the witnesses at his trial recanted testimony.

"It's been a long time coming but I'm happy I'm here," Francisco "Franky" Carrillo told reporters after he walked out of Men's Central Jail. "It's a beautiful day in L.A., man. I've always had faith and confidence that justice would prevail and here's proof of it."

Linda Starr, legal director of the Northern California Innocence Project, which fought to overturn Carrillo's murder conviction, was surprised to see him on the street.

"They opened the door and let him out," Starr said. "We had no warning whatsoever. He came walking down the sidewalk."

Carrillo, 37, was 16 when he went to Folsom prison to serve two life terms. The first jury to hear the case deadlocked before a second panel convicted him of the Jan, 18, 1991, killing of 41-year-old Donald Sarpy in a drive-by shooting.

Carrillo always denied involvement and said he was home watching television when the attack took place. However, a teenage witness placed him at the scene.

Judge Paul A. Bacigalupo overturned the conviction on Monday after a recreation of the crime cast doubt on eyewitness accounts, and five of six trial witnesses — including Sarpy's son — recanted their testimony identifying Carrillo as the killer.

Bacigalupo did not rule on Carrillo's innocence or guilt but said the changed evidence cast doubt on the verdict.

The Innocence Project said a break in the case occurred when Dameon Sarpy read a handwritten confession from someone who claimed to have been the attacker.

Sarpy "then admitted that he could not then or now identify anyone in the car," according to the project's website.

Sarpy and other eyewitnesses testified at a hearing last week that it was too dark and events moved too quickly for them to have identified the gunman in the car. Two people suspected of being the attackers declined to testify by asserting their right against self-incrimination, the Innocence Project said.

The district attorney's office has 60 days to refile charges but had not made any decision Wednesday, spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales said.

Prosecutors also had no comment about Carrillo's release because the case was ongoing, she said.

However, prosecutors previously told the judge they believed the conviction should be overturned.

After his release, friends drove Carrillo to their home and planned to take him out to eat his first meal as a free man.

"It's overwhelming," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "I'm standing on a strange street in front of a strange home."

Carrillo said a shower and a meal were his first priorities. He will stay with friends while he readjusts to the society he left as a teenager.

"I'm homeless, so I'm going to be bouncing around for a while," he said. "I have family and friends I can stay with."

"I plan to take my transition period very slow," he said.

Carrillo said he wasn't angry about what happened to him but he wouldn't mind if people hearing his story get angry enough to write the governor and "make sure this will never happen to anyone else again."

Alison Tucher of the Morrison & Foerster law firm, which also represented Carrillo pro bono, said it had been an honor to work for a client as deserving as Carrillo and a thrill to see the work succeed.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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