LOS ANGELES – A judge said Thursday that he will issue a written ruling on whether a former security guard’s conviction for an 18-year-old woman’s shooting death in a Palmdale park-and-ride lot nearly 17 years ago should be overturned and if the man should be found factually innocent of the crime.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan told attorneys that he will take under submission the prosecution’s request to vacate Raymond Lee Jennings’ conviction for the Feb. 22, 2000, shooting death of Antelope Valley College student Michelle O’Keefe, along with the defense’s motion to find Jennings factually innocent of the crime.
It was not immediately clear how soon the judge would issue his ruling.
In a court filing this week, Los Angeles County Chief Deputy District Attorney John K. Spillane wrote that the District Attorney’s Office agrees that Jennings is entitled to relief “based on newly discovered evidence pointing to his factual innocence.”
O’Keefe was shot four times after she returned to her blue Ford Mustang, which she left at the park-and-ride lot so she could carpool with a friend to a Kid Rock video shoot in Los Angeles, where they worked as paid extras.
Jennings was a security guard at the parking lot where O’Keefe was killed.
Jennings, now 42, was convicted in December 2009 of second-degree murder by the third jury to hear the case against him. The first two juries deadlocked in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom and the case was eventually returned to Lancaster, where he was found guilty.
The case is the first in which the district attorney’s new Conviction Review Unit has asked a judge to overturn a conviction.
“The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has lost confidence in the validity of the conviction and requests that this court grant the habeas corpus petition and set aside Jennings’ conviction,” Spillane wrote in the letter to the judge. “Additionally, based upon the current state of the evidence known to us, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office will not seek to retry Raymond Jennings for the murder of Michelle O’Keefe,”
Spillane also noted that the facts uncovered in the ongoing investigation meet “the burden of proof required for a finding of factual innocence” for Jennings.
The judge met behind closed doors for nearly 45 minutes with Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide investigators and prosecutors from the District Attorney’s Office to discuss details of their investigation before announcing that he would not be making an immediate decision.
During the court hearing, the victim’s mother, Patricia, told the judge, “A jury convicted Jennings. Jennings is still guilty until proven otherwise … No new evidence has demonstrated that he is innocent.”
The victim’s father, Michael, urged the judge to speak with Deputy District Attorney Michael Blake — who tried the case all three times — to get his input before making a final decision.
The judge said he was ethically barred from speaking with the trial prosecutor, but said he would take the victim’s father up on his request that he review materials from the trial.
The victim’s parents said outside court that it was still hard for them to believe that Jennings wasn’t involved in their daughter’s killing.
“As far as I’m concerned, he’s still guilty,” her mother said, noting that she didn’t know anything yet about the new evidence authorities say they have uncovered.
Outside court, Jennings told reporters that “it’s a roller-coaster ride right now.”
“I’m pretty confident of the end result and so I still leave here with my head held high and knowing that justice has been served to a certain degree,” the Iraq war veteran and father of five said.
“You know, my heart goes out to the O’Keefes … No matter what’s told to the O’Keefes they’re always going to be under the impression that I’m the one that took their daughter’s life,” Jennings said. “It’s a sad reality. But I hope that they find peace and I hope that this new investigation leads to the conviction of the real perpetrator or perpetrators.”
Jennings — who had been behind bars since his December 2005 arrest and was serving a 40-year-to-life term in state prison — was released from custody on electronic monitoring June 23 at the request of the D.A.’s office while law enforcement completed a new investigation into O’Keefe’s killing.
Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace told reporters outside court that “no new evidence has been gathered that pointed toward Ray Jennings.” He said that the victim’s family is “not aware of the new information,” noting that “our hope is some resolution will come from the new information.”
Grace told the judge last year that the prosecution no longer had confidence in Jennings’ conviction “based upon what we feel is third-party culpability.”
Jennings’ attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said O’Keefe’s family has not been privy to the new evidence so the victims’ family members’ view of the case “doesn’t reflect the current state of the evidence.”
Outside court, the defense lawyer said, “You’ve got a case where there is no evidence that Ray Jennings committed this murder … This is not a cold case … They’re going after the bad guys or bad people and they’re trying to build a case and I hope they do that. And I hope the O’Keefes have the satisfaction one day of seeing the person who actually murdered their daughter brought to justice.”
Ehrlich told reporters that the case against Jennings had essentially “snowballed out of control,” saying that authorities “built an entire case and presuppose that the only person who could have committed the crime, the only person there was Ray Jennings.” He said there was a “faulty investigation that did not follow up all the leads.”
Those included an anonymous tip that the sheriff’s department received that O’Keefe had been murdered in a carjacking-gone-bad by gang members who had been in the parking lot to steal rims, hubcaps or items from cars, the defense attorney said.
“The evidence that other people present at the crime scene committed crimes with handguns close in time and similar in nature to the instant matter and left the scene before law enforcement could arrive raises questions about the validity of Mr. Jennings’ conviction,” according to a court filing released Thursday that was submitted by the prosecution to the judge last June and refers to the criminal histories of two people referred to only as “Jane Doe” and “John Doe.”`
“`The newly discovered evidence supports the inference that Ms. O’Keefe may have been killed by gang members during a robbery,” the filing said.
The prosecution noted in their June 2016 filing that the sheriff’s department and the Los Angeles Police Department are “conducting ongoing investigations of individuals suspected of complicity in Ms. O’Keefe’s murder.”
Grace told reporters that there is “voluminous new information” of which the defense and the public are unaware.
“So we don’t want you to go away with the false impression that the June letter is the sum and substance of the evidence that has been uncovered since June of 2016 … it may turn out that there’s now information that points to other persons that may or may not have been involved in Michelle O’Keefe’s murder,” the deputy district attorney said.
Blake had told jurors in Jennings’ second trial, “The mistake he made was assuming that she was a prostitute … Her fatal mistake in this interaction was standing up for herself.”
Jennings’ trial attorney, M. David Houchin, countered that there was no direct or physical evidence linking his client to the young woman’s killing.
No one else has been charged as yet in connection with the killing, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
At his sentencing hearing, Jennings turned toward the O’Keefe family and maintained his innocence.
“I sit here as an innocent man. And I’ve heard you speak on God, and as Christ as my Lord and savior, I will stand before God and this is one sin that I will not be judged for,” he said then.
In a December 2011 ruling, a three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that there was insufficient evidence to permit a rational jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he murdered O’Keefe.
The appellate court justices noted that “unidentified DNA found under her fingernails was not appellant’s” and hair found on her body was not from Jennings, but found that he knew details about O’Keefe’s murder that detectives had not publicly disclosed.
“In sum, although the evidence against appellant was circumstantial supported by his statements to investigators, we find the prosecution presented a case of sufficient strength that a rational jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant murdered Michelle O’Keefe,” the three-justice panel found.
The California Supreme Court refused in March 2012 to review the case against Jennings.
Ehrlich noted he began working on the case after the state appeals had been denied and while a federal petition was pending that “didn’t point out the problems in the case” and would have been denied if he had not asked for a stay in the proceedings to give the defense more time to examine the case.
“I am confident that he would have been ultimately exonerated … but it would have been a contested proceeding and it would have taken years,” Ehrlich said last year.
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