A judge Thursday took under submission the prosecution's request to set aside 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.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan told attorneys that he will issue a written ruling -- he did not say when -- on the request to overturn Raymond Lee Jennings' conviction for the Feb. 22, 2000, shooting death of 18-year-old Antelope Valley College student Michelle O'Keefe, along with the defense's motion to find Jennings factually innocent.
In a court filing submitted to the judge this week, Los Angeles County Chief Deputy District Attorney John K. Spillane wrote that his office agrees that Jennings, who was a security guard at the parking lot where O'Keefe was killed, is entitled to relief "based on newly discovered evidence pointing to his factual innocence."
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"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. "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 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 urged the judge to speak with Deputy District Attorney Michael Blake -- who tried the case three times -- to get his input before making a final decision.
"I've been told there's new information. From what I've seen, nothing's changed my mind," Michael O'Keefe told the judge. The judge said he was ethically barred from speaking with the trial prosecutor, but would take the victim's father up on his request that he review materials from the trial.
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 42-year-old 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 the victim's family is "not aware of the new information" uncovered during the investigation, 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 would be from the "prosecution circa 2005."
"It doesn't reflect the current state of the evidence," he said. Jennings 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. "There was never any evidence that actually connected Jennings to the O'Keefe murder," Ehrlich wrote in his motion seeking a finding of factual innocence for Jennings. "The murder of Michelle O'Keefe was a senseless tragedy.
That tragedy was compounded when the investigators and the original prosecutors who worked on the case developed `tunnel vision' concerning Ray Jennings, and concocted a flimsy case against him based entirely of inferences that were unreasonable, lacked evidentiary support, or suffered from both flaws.
Ray Jennings lost 11 years of his life as a result," Ehrlich wrote in his filing. "To its credit, the District Attorney's Office agreed to take a new look at the case, and then re-opened the investigation into Michelle O'Keefe's murder when the flaws in the original prosecution became clear.
The wrongful conviction of Raymond Jennings not only deprived him of his freedom, but allowed the real killer to go free." Jennings' attorney wrote that the district attorney and the sheriff's department are "now seeking to build their case against the real killer or killers." "Their investigation continues, but it has progressed far enough to allow those agencies, and this court, to conclude that Jennings' conviction should be vacated, and to find that he is factual innocent," Ehrlich wrote.
The defense lawyer told reporters last year that Jennings "is not a murderer" and was "a witness to an awful, senseless, brutal crime." No one else has been charged as yet in connection with the killing, according to the District Attorney's Office. 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 then he was "just tickled to death" and has long believed that Jennings was innocent of the crime. 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.
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." Houchin countered that 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 last year.