The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office will ask a judge Thursday to order a convicted murderer to be released from state prison, after new evidence was uncovered that prosecutors say raises doubts about his conviction for the shooting death of an 18-year-old woman in a Palmdale park-and-ride lot, where he worked as a security guard.
The district attorney’s newly formed Conviction Review Unit is set to ask a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to release 42-year-old Raymond Lee Jennings on his own recognizance while law enforcement completes an active investigation, according to a statement released this afternoon by the District Attorney’s Office.
Jennings, an Iraq war veteran, was convicted in December 2009 of second- degree murder for the Feb. 22, 2000 shooting death of Antelope Valley College student Michelle O’Keefe. 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 and sentenced to 40 years to life in state prison.
“My office has been presented with credible new evidence that brings this conviction into question,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said. “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.”
Upon hearing of the request, defense attorney M. David Houchin — who represented Jennings in all three of his trials — said it was “unbelievable.”
“I can’t believe it,” he said, his voice full of emotion.
He said Jennings is at the “top” of a “very short list” of defendants he has represented at trial whom he believes were factually innocent.
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.
“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.
–City News Service