LOS ANGELES – More than six years after his conviction, a man serving a 40-year-to-life prison term for the shooting death of an 18-year-old woman in a Palmdale park-and-ride lot was ordered Thursday to be released from custody in light of new evidence that prosecutors say casts doubt upon his conviction.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan ordered Raymond Lee Jennings released on his own recognizance, but with electronic monitoring at the prosecution’s request. The 42-year-old Iraq war veteran — who had been behind bars since his December 2005 arrest — was freed shortly before 3 p.m.
The judge’s ruling came at the request of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office’s newly formed Conviction Review Unit, which asked that Jennings be freed while law enforcement completes an investigation into the Feb. 22, 2000, shooting death of Antelope Valley College student Michelle O’Keefe. Jennings was a security guard at the parking lot where the shooting occurred.
“We are prepared to say that the people no longer have confidence in the conviction based upon what we feel is third-party culpability,” Deputy District Attorney Robert Grace told the judge.
The judge ordered Jennings to return to the downtown Los Angeles courthouse Aug. 24 for a status conference.
Jennings was convicted in December 2009 of second-degree murder by the third jury to hear the case against him. The first two juries to hear the case against him deadlocked in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom and the case was eventually returned to Lancaster, where he was found guilty.
The victim’s father, Michael O’Keefe, told reporters after the hearing, “There’s a lot of information that I don’t know about. Just based on what I know, the fact is Mr. Jennings is still guilty until proven otherwise.”
But he acknowledged, “They’ve got something or they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing … I know the importance of keeping things under wraps.”
He said he hopes that “justice is served and that they look at all of the evidence and I know they are.”
Jennings smiled as he spoke to his lawyer just before the hearing, but he was led back in handcuffs to a courtroom lockup while awaiting his release.
“I think he was just happy to know that after 11 years in prison that his ordeal was coming to an end,” his attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, told reporters after the hearing. “Ray Jennings is not a murderer. He was a witness to an awful, senseless, brutal crime, and he was arrested five years later and convicted several years after that on the flimsiest of cases. And I am gratified that the district attorney, Jackie Lacey, set up the Conviction Review Unit.”
But the attorney — who is representing Jennings pro bono — said he was “very disappointed today that the district attorney wasn’t able to just say, ‘We acknowledge that he’s innocent,’ but I’m confident that when we come back to court in 60 days that is what is going to happen.”
The defense attorney said Jennings is “not the focus of the ongoing investigation,” and said the new investigation encompasses looking at the evidence and doing “the things that should have been done right after the murder and certainly before charges were filed against Raymond Jennings.”
“All of the information they are pursuing now was available to them at that time,” Ehrlich said, citing a “cascade of errors that started with an inadequate investigation into the murder.”
“He was not the only person at the murder scene,” the attorney said of his client. “Now they are doing a normal investigation … and it is leading them in the direction that is going to result in the proper charges being filed against the proper people.”
As for the victim’s family, Ehrlich said, “I feel very badly for the O’Keefe family. They’ve been through a tremendous ordeal … Mr. O’Keefe has not been made aware of all of the new evidence.”
Jennings’ trial attorney M. David Houchin — who represented him in each of the three trials — was in court as his former client was ordered to be released.
Houchin said he was “just tickled to death” and that he has long believed that Jennings was innocent of the crime.
Prosecutors did not speak outside court.
In a statement released Wednesday, Lacey said, “My office has been presented with credible new evidence that brings this conviction into question. Attorneys assigned to the newly created Conviction Review Unit have examined the evidence and are working with law enforcement personnel to investigate further. In the interest of justice, I am asking the court to release Raymond Jennings on his own recognizance while this investigation continues.”
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.
Deputy District Attorney Michael Blake 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’ attorney told jurors there was no direct or physical evidence linking his client to the young woman’s killing.
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.
[Editor’s note: Story has been updated to include additional details.]