On January 5, 1984, 27-year-old Jay French, a maintenance man an an apartment complex in South Pasadena, California was shot to death in the driveway of the complex.
A witness told police a gunman ran up to French, shot him twice and then dashed to a yellow Ford Pinto station wagon driven by a blond woman who then sped away. The gunman was described as a white man who was tall and slender with shoulder length blonde hair.
Before he died on the pavement, French said, “That (obscenity) in the yellow Pinto shot me.”
His wife, Gina, who was summoned from their apartment, later testified that he said that “he was going to die and it had something to do with Jeannie, it looked like somebody she hangs around with or somebody she hung around with.”
No physical evidence was found.
Police focused on Frank O’Connell, a former star high school football player from nearby Glendora, California after French's ex-wife, Jeannie Lyon, gave O'Connell's name to police as a cousin who was staying at her house.
In truth, O'Connell was not her cousin, but had stayed at Lyon's house five months earlier after she separated from her then-current husband. O'Connell was tall, slim and had short dark hair.
Shortly after the murder, a witness, Daniel Druecker, was shown a photo lineup and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detectives said Druecker selected the photo of O’Connell.
The detectives said another man, Arturo Villareal, who was standing 250 feet away, said he saw the gunman flee in the yellow Ford Pinto. Police said a third man, Maurice Soucy, recalled seeing O’Connell in a yellow Ford Pinto parked across the street from Lyon’s home in Duarte, California.
At the time of the crime, French was involved in a bitter and protracted battle with Jeannie Lyon over the custody of their nine-year-old son. Five years earlier, in 1979, when French was granted custody, Lyon took the boy and fled to Oregon, where she was arrested in the spring of 1980.
The custody battle was still raging when French was killed—a psychiatric examination of the boy was the subject of a court hearing set for the following month.
O’Connell, 27, was arrested on January 12, 1984 and charged with murder and the use of a handgun although he said he was more than 25 miles away at the time of the shooting.
He went on trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court on January 8, 1985 after choosing to have the case decided by a judge without a jury.
Druecker identified O’Connell in court as the gunman.
Villareal testified that he identified two photographs in the photo lineup and told the detective he “couldn’t be positive.” Villareal said that the photo of O’Connell “looked like the person who was there, but I’m not positive.” The detective, however, testified that Villareal had identified O’Connell as “the strongest contender” and said he was “sure that’s him.”
Soucy lived across the street from Lyon and identified O’Connell as the man he saw driving a yellow Ford Pinto on many occasions and that was parked in front of Lyon’s home. Soucy said he had spoken with O’Connell twice, once helping him jump-start the Pinto.
Their testimony was bolstered by French’s dying words, as reported by his wife--although police said that when they arrived on the scene, French was not able to speak.
O’Connell presented witnesses who said he never owned a yellow Ford Pinto and that at the time of the crime he was with friends in La Verne, California.
The judge convicted O’Connell on January 15, 1985. On April 16, 1985, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
After his appeals failed, he filed a petition for a federal writ of habeas corpus in June 1995, but that was dismissed in March 1996.
In 1998, O’Connell enlisted the assistance of Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, New Jersey-based organization that investigates wrongful convictions. Following years of investigation, a petition for a state writ of habeas corpus was filed on July 31, 2009.
Centurion tracked down Druecker in Texas and he gave a sworn affidavit saying that he could never identify the gunman. He said that he only saw the gunman in profile and it was for no more than two seconds. Druecker said he told the detectives he would only be guessing when he was shown the photo line-up. The detectives pressed him to make a selection and he picked O’Connell, but it was a guess. At that point, a detective picked up the telephone and made a call, saying that Druecker had identified the right man.
Under pressure, Druecker then said he was certain O’Connell was the gunman.
The petition also included sworn affidavits from five people—including Lyon’s sister—saying they had heard Jeannie Lyon say she hired a hit man to kill French and that O’Connell was innocent.
In June 2010, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover ordered an evidentiary hearing and subpoenas were issued for police records.
Included in detectives notes— but never before disclosed to the defense—was an account of interviews detectives conducted with French's custody lawyer and French’s wife, Gina, in which they detailed a prior attempt by Jeannie Lyon to kill French.
They told detectivies that in 1980, Lyon and Randy Smith, a tall, slim man with blonde hair, had ambushed French while he was driving his motorcycle and attempted to run him over. French had filed a report of the incident with South Pasadena police, she said.
Also discovered for the first time were detective notes that Soucy was not at all sure about his identification of O’Connell.
On March 29, 2012, Judge Clover set aside O’Connell’s conviction and ordered a new trial, saying the new evidence cast doubt on the accuracy of the eyewitnesses. Further, the judge ruled, “The failure to disclose the prior attempt on the life of the victim casts doubt on the true meaning of the dying declaration, a critical piece of the victim’s case.”
The judge found that the failure to disclose the detectives’ notes that contained exculpatory information about the identifications by the eyewitnesses was also critical. “The discrepancy between the notes and the police reports is more than significant,” the judge ruled.
O’Connell was released on bond on April 21, 2012.
On June 11, 2012, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges. In March 2013, O'Connell filed a federal wrongful conviction lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department alleging evidence showing his innocence was improperly withheld and that sheriff's detectives coerced witnesses to identify him.