Guard convicted in killing ordered freed amid guilt doubts

AP News
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Posted: Jun 23, 2016 6:29 PM
Guard convicted in killing ordered freed amid guilt doubts

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A judge on Thursday ordered the release of a former security guard after prosecutors said new evidence cast doubt on his conviction for killing a college student 16 years ago in California.

Raymond Lee Jennings, 42, will be released on his own recognizance but must wear an electronic monitoring device. It wasn't immediately clear when Jennings actually would be freed.

"I think he was just happy to know that after 11 years in prison that his ordeal was coming to an end," his attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said after the hearing.

Prosecutors in Los Angeles County asked a Superior Court judge to free Jennings while the district attorney's office reinvestigates the Feb. 22, 2000, death of 18-year-old Michelle O'Keefe. She was shot in a car in a park-and-ride lot in Palmdale, a desert community northeast of Los Angeles.

"We are prepared to say that the people no longer have confidence in the conviction" and feel someone else killed O'Keefe, Deputy District Attorney Robert Grace told the judge.

Jennings has been behind bars since his 2005 arrest.

After two trials ended with deadlocked juries, Jennings was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009. He was sentenced to 40 years to life in state prison but has always maintained his innocence.

Michael O'Keefe, the victim's father, told reporters after the hearing that in his view, Jennings "is still guilty until proven otherwise."

However, O'Keefe said of prosecutors: "They've got something or they wouldn't be doing what they're doing" and added that he hopes justice is served.

Jennings' lawyer had asked the district attorney's newly formed Conviction Review Unit to reopen the case, arguing that his client was prosecuted on flimsy evidence while authorities ignored other suspects.

He said Wednesday that prosecutors have agreed to a judge overturning Jennings' conviction If nothing new is found within 60 days tying his client to the killing.

The judge ordered Jennings to return to court on Aug. 24 for a status conference.

O'Keefe, a student at Antelope Valley College, was shot several times after returning from Los Angeles, where she had worked as an extra in a music video.

Jennings, an Iraq War veteran with no criminal history who was studying to become a U.S. marshal, said he was 400 feet away when he saw O'Keefe's car rolling backward and heard gunshots but didn't see her attacker.

Prosecutors argued that Jennings, then a security guard, panicked and shot O'Keefe when she rebuffed his sexual assault.

Jennings' attorneys maintained the woman was killed in a failed carjacking by someone else and that he was prosecuted on flimsy evidence.

No gun was found and no blood spatters, DNA or other physical evidence tied Jennings to the crime.

"Ray Jennings is not a murderer. He was a witness to an awful, senseless, brutal crime," Ehrlich said.