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LA County will pay a man $15 million after he was wrongly convicted

Frank O'Connell says he maintained a relationship with his son Nick during the 27 years he spent in prison for a murder he says he did not commit. Here, O'Connell, left, and his son are seen visiting Big Sur after a judge overturned O'Connell's conviction and ordered him released in 2012. Kaye McLane Bednarski & Litt, LLP

In one of the largest such legal settlements ever in the U.S., the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved the payment of $15 million to Frank O'Connell, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder he says he didn't commit. A judge freed him in 2012 because of improper conduct by sheriff's detectives.

"It’s a kind of closure to this nightmare," O’Connell told KPCC.

When detectives first arrested him in 1984, "I thought it was a joke," he said. When a judge found him guilty, "I thought it would get worked out."

It did get worked out, but not before activists from the innocence movement and a prominent Pasadena civil rights attorney took up O’Connell’s cause. And not before the sheriff’s department asked the DA to refile murder charges – even after a federal judge ordered O’Connell released. 

O'Connell was a 27-year-old woodworker and former Glendora High School football star when he was convicted for the 1984 murder of a South Pasadena man. The man – Jay French – was shot twice in the parking lot of the apartment complex where he lived and worked as a maintenance man. He died at the scene.

Sheriff's detectives fingered O'Connell as the suspect early on in the investigation. Before he died, a witness heard French say the shooter "was the guy in the yellow Pinto," and that "this had something to do" with his ex-wife, according to documents.

O'Connell had a brief affair with French's ex-wife the previous summer, and a neighbor told detectives a man who looked like O'Connell had asked him to jump-start a yellow Ford Pinto on multiple occasions.

Daniel Druecker, who witnessed the murder, picked O'Connell out of a photo lineup. O'Connell was convicted of murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison, largely on Druecker's testimony.

Neither the murder weapon nor the vehicle were ever recovered.

Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit that works on getting innocent people released from prison, began looking into the case. When its staff approached Druecker, he said he actually had an obstructed view of the killing from more than 30 feet away and didn't have his glasses on at the time.

More importantly, Druecker said he felt pressured to provide a positive ID to the two detectives who came to his home to show him the photo lineup.

One detective told him, "you picked the right guy" when he identified O'Connell and then explained their love triangle theory as the motive for the killing, Druecker said.

The process amounted to "verbal abuse," said Kate Germond, the executive director of Centurion Ministries and the investigator who looked into O’Connell’s case. "It was pretty disturbing."

Added Germond, "Pretty quickly I thought he could be innocent. He also had a really good alibi – an outstanding alibi."

All along, O'Connell maintained his innocence. At his trial, two roommates testified he was at their house in La Verne around the time of the murder.

Witness misidentification - either as a result of police pressure or an honest mistake - is the single biggest reason for wrongful convictions in the U.S.

At a new hearing, a judge determined the detectives may have exercised improper influence on the witness. The judge also determined detectives had failed to fulfill their legal obligation to reveal to defense attorneys evidence that might show O'Connell was innocent.

Detectives did not reveal a tip that French's ex-wife had paid a man in Oregon $7,000 to have him murdered after French won custody of their son, or that French's wife told them she believed that his ex-wife had tried to have him murdered five years earlier.

Detectives did not hand over notes that said the man who jump-started the yellow Pinto refused to identify O'Connell as the owner.

"This was the most flagrant abuse of evidence that we’ve ever encountered," said O’Connell’s attorney Ron Kaye. In an example of how difficult it is for someone to prove their innocence once he's been convicted, Kaye said O’Connell did not have access to the sheriff’s entire case file that had the evidence pointing to other suspects until O'Connell was granted a habeus hearing in 2012. he filed his federal civil lawsuit in 2013.

In 2012, a judge overturned O'Connell's conviction, saying detectives used suggestive identification procedures on the key eyewitness and did not fulfill their obligation to reveal to the defense potentially exculpatory evidence.

The sheriff’s department wanted prosecutors to refile charges, according to Kaye, but the L.A. County District Attorney's office declined. The sheriff also filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court arguing the detectives at the time of the investigation did not have the same obligations they do today to reveal evidence favorable to the defense. The appeal failed.

Kaye said the department was more interested in "the politics of not being seen as doing anything wrong" than acknowledging their mistake and settling the civil lawsuit. Negotiations languished for four years. "We would have settled for millions less earlier," he said.

The sheriff’s department did not respond to requests for comment, nor did the county counsel.

In an intriguing twist, the suit alleged that it was French's ex-wife who directed detectives' attention to O'Connell in an effort to distract them from her own possible involvement. The lawsuit says investigators with Centurion Ministries found French's ex-wife "had made numerous statements … to the effect that she had hired an anonymous hit man to murder Jay French."

O'Connell was arrested at the ex-wife’s home after she invited him over to dinner. He doesn’t know if detectives coordinate the effort with her.

Prosecutors have not charged anyone else with the murder since O'Connell's release.

O'Connell, now 59, is entitled to damages for not just the mental and physical pain and injury he suffered while in prison, but also the "extreme mental anguish" he suffered because he was unable to see his son Nick grow up, the suit claims. Nick was four years old when his father went to prison.

Peering through plexiglass at his father was among his first memories, Nick O’Connell told KPCC. All along he believed his father was innocent, but at age 15 he read the entire case file to erase any lingering doubt. He moved to his girlfriend’s grandparents' house when he graduated high school because it was near San Quentin, where his father was housed.

"We are as close as you could be given the constraints for so long," the son said. The two ride motorcycles and play basketball together now.

The county admits no wrongdoing by agreeing to the settlement. In fact, in their memo to the supervisors, county lawyers state the witness who recanted "stood firm" in his identification of O'Connell during the original trial. They also suggest defense lawyers may have known about some of the exculpatory evidence.

Nonetheless, they recommended one of the largest payouts in county history involving the sheriff's department.

The memo notes that the sheriff's department issued new policies last year regarding procedures for witness identification and handing over evidence to prosecutors and defense attorneys. The policies establish clear processes to make sure there is no undue influence on witnesses and to create a "check-off form" detectives can use to list evidence that should be handed over to prosecutors and defense attorneys – including evidence that might exonerate someone accused of a crime.

It’s unclear to what extent the department has changed its policies – it did not provide the old or new policies nor would a spokesperson discuss them. 

The leaders of innocence projects around the country have been arguing for years that law enforcement agencies need to engage in the same kind of exhaustive examination of wrongful convictions that hospitals do when a healthy patient dies in the emergency room or when aviation investigators examine plane crashes.

"There needs to be a recognition that it’s not simply about a bad apple or two," said UCLA Law School Professor Diana Schwartz, who has studied police litigation involving excessive force and wrongful convictions across the country. "It’s almost always that there is a system failure, multiple system failures."

The O'connells are disturbed that more police agencies, including the sheriff's department, do not require a double blind eyewitness identification process. That's when the officer or deputy showing a photo lineup is not involved in the case and doesn't know if it includes the suspect - so he or she is less likely to knowingly or unintentionally influence the witness. 

Nick O’Connell is unconvinced the sheriff has made meaningful changes.

"The fox is guarding the henhouse," he said. "How can we ensure that these policies are being followed?"

Added Kaye: "If there’s any case that should trigger systemic reforms…this is the one." 

Some other big legal settlements involving wrongful convictions: