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Judge tosses 27-year-old South Pas murder conviction

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Back in 1985, when people still drove Ford Pintos, South Pasadena resident Frank O’Connell was convicted of shooting a man to death and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

Fast forward to last week, when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover -- noting that the prosecutor’s key witness in that long-ago trial had recanted -- tossed out the conviction against O’Connell in another case of what some are calling prosecutorial misconduct.

According to the LA Times, the onetime Glendora High School football star was the prime suspect in the murder of Jay French, who was shot to death on Jan. 5, 1984 near a State Street apartment complex in South Pasadena where he lived.

As he lay dying, French reportedly stated that his killer drove a yellow Ford Pinto. He also said the shooter resembled someone known to French’s ex-wife, with whom French was fighting a child custody battle.

That led investigators to O’Connell, who once had a romantic relationship with French’s ex-wife, according to reports.

Investigators also focused on an eyewitness to the shooting -- Daniel Druecker, a resident of the State Street apartment. Druecker later picked O’Connell out of a photo lineup and became the prosecution’s key witness in the case.

Then last summer, the Times reports, Druecker came before the same family members in the same Pasadena courtroom to recant his earlier testimony. He had been pressured by prosecutors, he said, and was never certain of who he’d seen that day.

The case against O’Connell began to unravel in other ways as well. Judge Clover stated in her ruling that notes taken by investigators that would have helped the defense’s case were never turned over. And she cited sworn statements by defense witnesses that French’s ex-wife had admitted involvement in the murder and that she’d dated another tall light-haired man.

The county District Attorney’s office says it is not likely to retry the case, but won’t make a final decision on the matter until April 17. Until then, O’Connell will stay behind bars to await his fate.

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