Former Security Guard Convicted in 2000 Murder Granted Release From Prison

Raymond Lee Jennings, 42, was convicted in December 2009 in the February 2000 shooting death of Antelope Valley College student

A former security guard convicted in the February 2000 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 said casts doubt upon his conviction.

Raymond Lee Jennings, 42, was ordered released on his own recognizance, but with electronic monitoring. It was not immediately clear when he would be freed. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan scheduled an Aug. 24 status conference in the case.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office sought the release after new evidence was uncovered that prosecutors said raises doubts about his conviction. The case was featured in a 2015 episode of "Dateline NBC."

Jennings worked as a security guard in the park-and-ride lot where the slaying occurred. The 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,'' Los Angeles County 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.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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