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Frank O’Connell freed after judge overturns 27-year-old murder conviction

The case against South Pasadena resident Frank O'Connell was tossed out in the same courtroom where he was convicted 27 years ago.
The case against South Pasadena resident Frank O'Connell was tossed out in the same courtroom where he was convicted 27 years ago.

For 27 years, Frank O’Connell maintained his innocence as he languished in prison for the 1984 shooting death of a man in South Pasadena.

Today O’Connell is out on bail, with his original trial -- the one that put him away for 25 years to life -- thrown out and a second one planned for the coming months. A preliminary hearing has been set for May 18.

The San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports that O’Connell, 54, was released Saturday morning after posting a $75,000 bond set by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover -- the same judge who tossed out the conviction against him in late March. In overturning the case, the judge gave prosecutors a new chance to try him -- and set O’Connell’s bail at the original amount set by a judge in 1985.

The bail was posted by Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit group convinced of O’Connell’s innocence and working for his release. The group’s website says it is dedicated to gaining freedom for “those innocent individuals who had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes for which they were convicted.”

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, 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.

On Saturday, the newly freed O’Connell was greeted by overjoyed family members, including his mother.

“I feel great,” he told the Huffington Post, adding that “Getting acclimated back into society is going to take a little while.”

Before getting fully acclimated, O’Connell must once again face prosecutors from the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office, who decided to retry him despite their key witness recanting his earlier testimony.

The earlier KPCC post on this story elicited some interesting comments from local readers -- including one from a person claiming to be a family member of victim Jay French, who wrote: “Our family has suffered immensely and this is only causing even more heartache all over again having to re-live what was done to our beloved son, father, brother, uncle and friend.”