Crime & Justice

Convicted killer freed as Los Angeles DA reinvestigates his alleged crime

File: Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
File: Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

A judge on Thursday ordered the release of a former security guard after prosecutors said new evidence cast doubt on his conviction for killing a college student 16 years ago in California.

Raymond Lee Jennings, 42, will be released on his own recognizance but must wear an electronic monitoring device. It wasn't immediately clear when Jennings actually would be freed.

Prosecutors in Los Angeles County asked a Superior Court judge to free Jennings while it reinvestigates the Feb. 22, 2000, death of 18-year-old Michelle O'Keefe. She was shot in a car in a park-and-ride lot in Palmdale, a desert community northeast of Los Angeles.

After two trials ended with deadlocked juries, Jennings was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009. He was sentenced to 40 years to life in state prison despite maintaining his innocence.

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

Jennings' current attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said he asked the district attorney's newly formed Conviction Review Unit to investigate.

"That reopened investigation has generated new leads that they are actively pursuing," Ehrlich said.

He said prosecutors have agreed to overturn Jennings' conviction If nothing new is found within 60 days tying his client to the killing.

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

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 didn't see her attacker.

Jennings' attorneys maintained the woman was killed in a failed carjacking by someone else.

Prosecutors argued that Jennings, then a security guard, panicked and shot O'Keefe when she rebuffed his sexual assault.

No gun was found, and no blood spatters, DNA or other physical evidence tied Jennings to the crime.

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

"I sit here as an innocent man," Jennings told them. "I will stand before God and this is one sin that I will not be judged for."

This story has been updated.