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Man Freed After 11 Years In Prison For A Murder He May Not Have Committed
A man who was sentenced to 40-years-to-life in prison for fatally shooting a young woman in a parking lot was released today, as new evidence indicates he may not have committed the crime.
Raymond Lee Jennings, now 42, was arrested in December of 2005 for the murder of 18-year-old Michelle O'Keefe. Today, he walked free just before 3 p.m., City News Service reports.
The L.A. County District Attorney's Office's Conviction Review Unit, which formed last summer to focus on possible wrongful convictions, made the request after looking into the case. Perhaps most notably, there was no physical evidence linking Jennings to the murder, and the murder weapon was never located.
Deputy DA Robert Grace said to the judge, "We are prepared to say that the people no longer have confidence in the conviction based upon what we feel is third-party culpability."
On February 22, 2000, Jennings, who had served as an Army National Guardsman and in the Iraq war, was working as a security guard at a Palmdale park-and-ride lot. He reported hearing gunshots and seeing O'Keefe's car roll backwards. When he reached the car, he found her sitting slumped in the driver's seat of her Ford Mustang. He said he did not see who attacked her. Investigators discovered the young Antelope Valley College student, who had left her car in the lot while she worked as an extra in a Kid Rock music video in Los Angeles, had been shot four times. Jennings was not arrested until 2005, and was not convicted until 2009.
Jennings' current attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, wrote in a letter to prosecutors that investigators failed to look into anyone else who was in the parking lot that night, including a man that a witness said she saw flee the lot. He also suggested that new evidence indicated O'Keefe may have been the victim of a robbery or attempted carjacking, the L.A. Times reports. Prosecutors in Jennings' trial put forth the theory that Jennings had made a pass at O'Keefe, then shot when she rejected him.
At the time of his conviction in 2009, his lawyer, David Houchin, advocated for his client's innocence. He claimed that jurors were given cuts from interview transcripts that the judge had said could not be used in trial, and that after two previous trials in which jurors deadlocked, Jennings was only convicted after the trial was moved to Lancaster. This was closer to where O'Keefe's family lived. He told NBC Los Angeles that Jennings was one of very few clients he'd represented that he believed was factually innocent.
Despite the lack of physical evidence, detectives found it odd that Jennings claimed that O'Keefe was still alive when he found her, but that he chose not to perform CPR on her because he did not want to contaminate the crime scene. They also said he changed his account a few times and seemed to know specific details how O'Keefe was killed. However, his defense argued he was merely speculating when questioned, and medical experts later revealed that one of Jennings' answers was wrong.
O'Keefe's father, Michael O'Keefe, said that he still believes Jennings murdered his daughter. "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," he said.
Jennings must return to court on August 24 for a status conference. According to Bakersfield Now, he has to wear an electronic monitoring device for the time being. Ehrlich said that if prosecutors are unable to find any additional evidence against Jennings in 60 days, the conviction will be overturned.