LOS ANGELES – A former security guard who spent more than a decade behind bars for the February 2000 shooting death of an 18-year-old woman in a Palmdale park-and-ride lot was declared factually innocent in court papers released Tuesday.
“It is something I’ve been waiting for a long time. I always knew deep down inside it would come about,” 42-year-old Raymond Lee Jennings said after learning that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan granted a motion finding him “factually innocent of the murder of Michelle O’Keefe.”
“It’s so joyful because now you have a tangible object to hold on to,” Jennings said of Ryan’s 12-page ruling, noting that he had “tears” in his eyes.
The ruling, issued Monday, comes a week after Ryan overturned Jennings’ second-degree murder conviction for the Feb. 22, 2000, shooting death of O’Keefe.
Antelope Valley College student Michelle O’Keefe was shot four times after returning to her blue Ford Mustang in the park-and-ride lot from a Kid Rock video shoot in Los Angeles where she and a friend had worked as paid extras.
Jennings, an Iraq war veteran and father of five, was a security guard at the park-and-ride lot where O’Keefe was killed.
In a petition seeking to have Jennings released from custody last year, prosecutors cited “newly discovered evidence” that “supports the inference that Ms. O’Keefe may have been killed by gang members during a robbery.”
The case was the first in which the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s new Conviction Review Unit had asked a judge to overturn a conviction.
Jennings — who had been behind bars since his December 2005 arrest in connection with O’Keefe’s killing — was released from custody last June 23 while serving a 40-year-to-life prison term.
In his ruling last week, Ryan noted that the investigation “now expressly excludes Jennings as being the perpetrator,” adding that the prosecuting authorities have declared publicly that they have no confidence in Jennings’ December 2009 conviction.
Jennings was arrested five years after the shooting and convicted 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.
A three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal had upheld Jennings’ conviction in a December 2011 ruling, with the California Supreme Court refusing in March 2012 to review the case against him.
Jennings’ attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said he and his client were “thrilled beyond measure” by the factual innocence finding. Ehrlich began working on the case after the state appeals had been denied and while a federal petition was pending, but said earlier he believed that process would have taken years.
Jennings — who is set to marry his fiance in November — said his heart has always gone out to the woman’s family, adding that “they deserve to know what the state has uncovered.”
In his ruling last week, Ryan noted that he hadn’t come to his decision lightly and was “not unmindful of the feelings of Michelle O’Keefe’s family and friends.”
“Undoubtedly, the O’Keefes feel a grave injustice has now been perpetrated. But justice is not measured by the number of people who support the conviction … While to the O’Keefes and others it may feel it is unjust to now grant Jennings relief, it is even more unjust to keep a man in prison who has been excluded by the lawful authorities as the perpetrator after an investigation, and further, as to whom those authorities now acknowledge to not merely be not guilty of the crime, but factually innocent of it,” Ryan wrote in his ruling last week.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey issued a statement last week acknowledging the family.
“I know this process has been very difficult for the O’Keefe family,” Lacey said. But this ruling represents an important acknowledgement that my office is dedicated to serving justice, even when it means reopening a closed case based on newly discovered evidence.”
The investigation into O’Keefe’s killing is continuing, Lacey said last week.
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