Mimesis Law
27 January 2022

Prosecutors Ask Court to Release Guy They Wrongfully Convicted

June 24, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Based on the original title of the article, you might think prosecutors deserve a medal for their valiant efforts on behalf of a wrongfully convicted veteran:

Prosecutors aim to free Iraq vet convicted of murdering California college student

That title, of course, doesn’t mention anything about the fact prosecutors convicted him in the first place, thus resulting in his incarceration and creating the need for him to be freed. It also doesn’t mention all of the hard work the guy’s lawyers probably put in convincing prosecutors the guy should be released. It isn’t like prosecutors are generally in the business of freeing people out of prison, after all.

Except in the rarest of cases, they mostly try to stick people in prison. Painting prosecutors as the saviors reinforces a popular sentiment about their virtuousness, however. One I suspect might be especially prevalent among readers of Fox News, which published the article. Regardless, new evidence changed their minds and had them asking for release:

Raymond Lee Jennings is serving 40 years to life in state prison following a 2009 conviction.

“My office has been presented with credible new evidence that brings this conviction into question,” District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement Wednesday.

Lacey said her office will ask a Superior Court judge to release Jennings, 42, on his own recognizance “in the interest of justice” while the DA’s Conviction Review Unit, formed last year, completes an investigation.

The DA’s office did not provide details of the new evidence. But Jennings’ attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said the unit, at his request, had decided to reopen the murder investigation.

Although it necessary follows that doubting Jennings committed the murder means suspecting someone else did, reopening the investigation makes the gravity of that hit especially hard. Police are now looking for a murderer who’s been on the loose for years while someone else sat in prison for the crime. They haven’t been trying to find a killer for years, but now they are. On top of that, the unit that’s investigating the potentially wrongful conviction has only been around for a year. I can’t help but wonder if Jennings would’ve never gotten them to change their minds if that resource hadn’t been around. They wrong guy might’ve died in custody while the guilty guy remained free doing who knows what.

Given the terrible facts surrounding how prosecutors got the conviction in the first place, the pro-prosecution original title of the article is even more inappropriate:

Only two men were at the scene at the time of the Feb. 22, 2000, killing in Palmdale, he said.

“They only investigated one man, Ray Jennings. They have finally decided to investigate the other one,” Ehrlich said Wednesday. “That reopened investigation has generated new leads that they are actively pursuing.”

If true, the level of incompetence it would take to not investigate one of two people there at the time of a murder is mind-boggling, though it’s also highly troubling that Jennings’s previous defense lawyers didn’t look into a third-party defense, especially considering that doing so apparently yielded something sufficiently exculpatory to release a convicted murderer. That incompetence is made worse by both the facts and the procedural history of the case against Jennings:

Jennings was working as a security guard when Michelle O’Keefe, 18, was shot in a car in a park-and-ride parking lot in Palmdale, a desert town northeast of Los Angeles.

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

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 said he never saw any attacker.

After two previous trials ended in deadlocked juries, Jennings was convicted of second-degree murder.

Members of O’Keefe’s family were on hand when Jennings was sentenced in 2010.

The case does a great job of highlighting the wastefulness of the system. We probably shouldn’t be applauding prosecutors for asking for Jennings’s release considering that it took them three expensive trials to wrongfully convict him. If at any point the prosecution had stepped back and thought that maybe two deadlocked juries was a sign that Jennings might not have done it, we’d have avoided having to pay to keep a potentially innocent guy in prison for eleven years. All the court, defense, and prosecution resources spent on Jennings’s case were literally for nothing.

The case also highlights the target fixation that so often clouds prosecutors’ judgment. Another article discusses the fact at greater length, which makes that even more apparent:

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. Moreover, 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.

An ordinary person wouldn’t exactly suspect an Iraq War veteran security guard with no criminal history would just suddenly decide to shoot to death a complete stranger for no reason. An ordinary person would probably focus more on the people smoking pot in the parking lot, the guy who fled the scene of the murder in a car, or maybe the person with gang ties and a criminal record. Sadly, these cops weren’t ordinary people, apparently. They pretty much just decided they didn’t like Jennings’s account of what happened and based the whole case on that:

Detectives grew suspicious of Jennings when 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 murder weapon was ever found.

For a guy hoping to go into law enforcement, and maybe even for a guy who just really likes working as a security guard or playing junior detective, avoiding contaminating a shooting scene isn’t necessarily that unreasonable a thing for him to do. Absent physical evidence, including no murder weapon, and with no actual evidence of any motive for Jennings to have done it, the prosecution would have to be pretty creative to get a conviction. Jennings’s prosecutor seemed to have creativity in spades:

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Blake argued during the trial that Jennings gave inconsistent accounts in various 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.

The prosecutor said the security guard probably made an advance toward O’Keefe and was rebuffed, leading to a confrontation and then the shooting.

The fact that the prosecutor could simply make up a motive and tell the jury about it is truly remarkable. He literally just pulled that rebuked-come-on theory of the crime out of his ass. Furthermore, it wasn’t like the shooter unloaded a lot of rounds. There were only four shots, so guessing the order correctly isn’t exactly statistically improbable. That prosecutors were able to convict Jennings based solely on his presence, the supposed inconsistency of his statements, and a totally baseless and made up motive is terrifying. That police and prosecutors both didn’t at some point say “hey, maybe we should look into the people doing drugs there at the same time or the guy who fled or the criminal with gang ties instead” is even scarier.

Since that first article came out, it was changed to reflect that Jennings has been released. As one last little kicker, however, it was with electronic monitoring. Given the needless use of resources that have already been spent on this case, it’s a very fitting cherry on the sundae for them to waste just a little bit more monitoring someone who’s very likely innocent. Jennings’s case really is a perfect little encapsulation of a lot of things that are very, very wrong with the justice system.

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  • Scott Jacobs
    24 June 2016 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    And, of course, he likely isn’t so keep on joining law enforcement any more…

  • Raymond Jennings’s Ongoing Nightmare
    1 July 2016 at 9:14 am - Reply

    […] 1, 2016 (Fault Lines) — After I wrote about Raymond Jennings, who was recently released after spending over a decade in prison for a […]