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Crime & Justice

1st big case for DA's special wrongful conviction unit

File: District Attorney Jackie Lacey briefs the media on the Conviction Review Unit while Assistant Head Deputy Kenneth Lynch looks on.
File: District Attorney Jackie Lacey briefs the media on the Conviction Review Unit while Assistant Head Deputy Kenneth Lynch looks on.
Courtesy of L.A. County District Attorney's Office

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In 2005, Raymond Lee Jennings was arrested and charged with the 2000 murder of an 18-year-old Palmdale high school student. In 2009, he was convicted and sentenced to serve 40 years to life in prison. 

This week, prosecutors from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office — the same prosecutors that got him convicted — submitted a request to a judge to overturn the ruling based on newly discovered evidence of Jennings' innocence. 

District Attorney Jackie Lacey introduced a special unit within the office designed to review claims of wrongful convictions and to safeguard against them back in 2015. This is the Conviction Review Unit's first big case since then, though it unfolds several months after Jennings was released from state prison.

Deputy District Attorney with the unit, Bobby Grace, spoke with Take Two's Alex Cohen about the possible exoneration of Raymond Lee Jennings.

The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.

Interview highlights: 

Let’s start with the conviction of Raymond Lee Jennings in 2009. What evidence was there supporting the notion that he was the killer? 

It was a circumstantial evidence case where Mr. Jennings was tied to the crime scene. He was a security guard at the location of the murder. Subsequently, he gave statements that placed him in or around the scene of the shooting at the time Michelle O’Keefe was killed. He also made several contradictory statements in interviews that were conducted by the police in a wrongful death suit that was brought by the O’Keefe family.

Last year, Raymond Lee Jennings was released. What happened at that time? Why was he let go?

The L.A. County District Attorney’s office went to a judge and said we had serious concerns about the conviction of Mr. Jennings based upon an investigation the review unit had conducted, based upon information that was provided by Mr. Jennings' attorney. This Conviction Review Unit was started by L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey. This was the first major case that the conviction review unit had begun an investigation on and started looking into the facts.

Out of all the cases to review, why this one?

It stood out because of the fact that it was a circumstantial evidence case with no physical evidence linking Mr. Jennings to the shooting of the victim.

Why hadn’t the case been dismissed and what has happened to that effect this week?

After Mr. Jennings was released last year, we informed the court that our office and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department was going to continue our investigation into the murder of Michelle O’Keefe and continue to review new evidence that we had uncovered after the Conviction Review Unit had begun a formal investigation. From June of last year through this month, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has devoted significant resources into her death and we’ve developed a lot of new information in respect to her murder. We can’t reveal what that new evidence is because the investigation is still ongoing, but the new evidence that has been discovered bolstered our opinion that the L.A. County District Attorney’s office no longer has confidence in the conviction. On Wednesday of this week, our office filed a letter with the Los Angeles Superior Court stating that we agreed with the position of Lee Jennings that his conviction should be vacated.

These are the attorneys who initially put this man behind bars. And now, you’re reviewing the work of your colleagues and you determined that maybe that work wasn’t completely correct. How does that feel for you?

The elected District Attorney Jackie Lacey followed the trend of what’s going on in the nation with a number of prosecutorial offices across the country starting these wrongful conviction units. It’s a recognition that is important, that any criminal justice agency has to be willing to look at its work, and if something has not been done correctly, or if there has been a mistake, that we’re willing to look at things and try to right a wrong if a wrong has been done.

There’s a man who hasn’t had the opportunity to watch his five kids grow up and now we discover that he might not have had to be behind bars. Does that concern you at all?

What it tells me is that the criminal justice system is evolving and has recognized that there should be different avenues to be heard when they feel that they’ve been wronged by the system. This is not the first time that the L.A. County District Attorney’s office has joined in the appellate process in determining that somebody has been wrongfully convicted. What we have done, is we set up another avenue where people can say that they’ve been wronged and they presented new evidence that had not been heard before.

Meanwhile, the family of the victim are still convinced that he is guilty.

We have nothing but sympathy for the O’Keefe family. Nobody has suffered more than their family. It’s very important to us that we continue to investigate the murder of Michelle O’Keefe and to support her family in any way that we can. We stand ready to do that and ensure the family that the resources that have been devoted to this are going to continue to be devoted. If we can reach some kind of conclusion in terms of criminal prosecution, we will pursue that goal as vigorously as we can. 

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue media player above.