Good news in a case I’ve been following. It was the subject of an NBC Dateline episode, “The Girl with the Blue Mustang.” If you watch it carefully, you’ll note that there is zero evidence against the man who has been in prison for years.
From the Los Angeles Times:
“The people no longer have confidence in the conviction,” Los Angeles Deputy Dist Atty. Bobby Grace told a judge, who ordered Raymond Lee Jennings released.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan recommended that Jennings be released immediately from the courthouse but ordered electronic monitoring for Jennings because the case against him has not been dismissed.
Jennings, who worked as a security guard at the Palmdale parking lot where O’Keefe was found, smiled broadly as entered the courtroom.
“He was happy to know, after 11 years, his ordeal is over,” his attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said outside court.
Q: Who is Jennings and how did he come under suspicion?
Jennings was an Army National Guardsman and Iraq war veteran.
Detectives grew suspicious when Jennings he told them the young woman was still alive when he found her but that he did not perform CPR because he feared contaminating the crime scene. But there was no physical evidence linking Jennings to the crime. No weapon was found.
Two juries in Los Angeles deadlocked on the case. But prosecutors got a conviction during a third trial, which was held in Lancaster, in the region where O’Keefe lived.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Blake argued during the trial that Jennings gave inconsistent accounts in statements to detectives and in his deposition and revealed details that only the killer would know, such as the order of the shots that were fired.
What is the new evidence?
Prosecutors are not saying. But Jennings’ attorney offered some clues.
Jeffrey Ehrlich said the new investigation uncovered evidence suggesting a robbery or carjacking and that Jennings had nothing to do with it.
“There were other people at the scene, and D.A.’s office was aware of them, but they only looked at Mr. Jennings,” he said.
In a letter to prosecutors, Ehrlich outlined what he considers the weaknesses of their case. The letter noted that there were several people in the parking lot at the time of the killing who were smoking pot and listening to music. The letter quoted one of the witnesses as saying she saw a man in Toyota Tercel flee the scene.
Ehrlich argued that investigators failed to look into whether other people in the parking lot might be involved in the murder. He noted in the letter that one of the people in the parking lot that night had ties to street gangs and in the years since was involved in series criminal activities.
The prosecutor said the security guard probably made an advance toward O’Keefe and was rebuffed, leading to a confrontation and then the shooting.
“It’s an unspeakable crime for no good reason,” Blake said after the verdict.
Defense attorneys said that Jennings was only speculating about the killing during his interviews and said he inaccurately described one of the victim’s wounds as a gunshot. Medical experts concluded that it was caused by a blow to the head.
Prosecutors have said the new investigation is continuing. It’s unclear whether they plan to charge a new suspect in the killing.
An Iraq war veteran convicted in the 2000 slaying of college student Michelle O’Keefe was ordered released from state prison Thursday after prosecutors express doubts about his guilt.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan ordered that Raymond Lee Jennings be released on his own recognizance after prosecutors filed a writ under seal that the jurist described as making it clear that prosecutors no longer believed in his 2009 conviction in the Palmdale slaying. He was freed Thursday afternoon.
“We are prepared to say the people no longer have confidence in the conviction based on third party culpability,” Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace told a judge, who ordered Jennings released.
Grace’s statement alluded to a new investigation the District Attorney’s office has launched into February 2000 fatal shooting that has developed new evidence. Grace declined to address specifics outside court but his statement in court supported suggestions by Jennings’ attorneys that another person present that night is responsible for shooting to death O’Keefe.
Prosecutors reopened the case after attorneys for Jennings questioned why Los Angeles Sheriff’s detectives never interviewed several other people at the scene in a car.
… Jennings smiled broadly as entered the courtroom. “He was happy to know, after 11 years, his ordeal is over,” his attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said outside court.
Ehrlich said sheriff’s detectives focused on Jennings, a father of five and Iraq War Veteran, as opposed to several other people at the scene including four people in a car smoking marijuana and listening to music.
Jennings was the Regular Guy White Defendant — an average family man with a spotless military record picking up some extra bucks as a security guard. He deployed to Iraq several times in the many years before he was charged.
Congratulations to the Ehrlich family of lawyers for their pro bono work in this case.
From the Ehrlich Law Firm press release:
On the night of the murder, Jennings, then 25 years old, had been patrolling the parking lot as an unarmed security guard. He heard gunshots and saw a car slowly rolling backward into a planter. Ms. O’Keefe’s body was inside, slumped over the steering wheel. She had been shot multiple times.
No forensic evidence tied Jennings to the crime. There was no gunshot residue on his clothes, nor was there any hair, fibers, or other trace evidence to suggest he had been in contact with the victim. No witness claimed to have seen the crime. At the time, Jennings was a 7-year veteran of the Army National Guard, with no prior criminal record. He held a “secret” security clearance and was studying to be a U.S. Marshal.
The murder went unsolved for over 5 years. In 2005, the District Attorney’s office charged Jennings with the murder, and he was arrested while he was on leave from serving in Iraq with his National Guard Unit. The case against Jennings was wholly circumstantial, and was primarily based on a now-discredited claim that he knew non-public details about the crime that only O’Keefe’s killer would have known.
Jennings was tried three times, with the first two juries unable to reach a verdict. In December 2009, a third jury convicted Jennings of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to a life term. His conviction was affirmed on appeal in 2011.
In June 2015, Jennings’ case came to the attention Ehrlich’s law-student son, Clinton Ehrlich. Clinton had seen a link on the internet to an NBC “Dateline” episode about the case. After watching the program he concluded that the case against Jennings was flawed, and he did further research. A few days later he convinced his father to take on the case for Jennings pro bono.
Clinton continued to develop a critique of the State’s case against Jennings, and on October 2, 2015, the father-son team submitted a 34-page single-spaced letter to the CRU, refuting every aspect of the State’s case. The letter persuaded the four experienced prosecutors staffing the CRU that Jennings was innocent and that the O’Keefe murder investigation should be re-opened. A new investigation was launched in May 2016.
The new investigation immediately focused on the people other than Jennings who had been in the parking lot when O’Keefe was shot.
Jennings, who has five children, has thus far served over 11 years in prison.