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Raymond Jennings

Other California CIU Exonerations
On February 22, 2000, 18-year-old Michelle O’Keefe and a friend, Jennifer Peterson, drove separately to an Antelope Valley Transit Park N Ride parking lot in Palmdale, California. O’Keefe parked her blue Mustang there and traveled with Peterson to the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, where they were extras in a Kid Rock music video.

They returned to the parking lot around 9:30 p.m. Peterson later recalled that she pulled behind O’Keefe’s Mustang, which was parked under a street lamp. Peterson said she saw O’Keefe get into the car, close the door and start the engine before Peterson drove home.

About two minutes later, 25-year-old Raymond Jennings, the security guard on duty at the lot, called for help over his two-way radio, saying he had heard gunshots. His supervisor, Iris Malone, arrived at about 9:42 p.m. Malone said that at first she did not see Jennings, but after a couple of minutes, he came out from behind his personal vehicle and approached her car. He pointed toward O’Keefe’s Mustang, which was about 400 feet away, with its engine running and rear wheels in a planter. Malone said Jennings refused to go with her to approach the Mustang.

Malone drove to the Mustang where she found O’Keefe fatally shot four times, with the driver’s side door open and her left leg hanging outside. There was no sign of life. Malone called Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office and summoned Jennings to the scene. While Malone waited, a Toyota with four people drove by slowly and exited the parking lot.

When deputies arrived, they found a clasp from a pierced earring stud on the floor of the passenger side—but no earrings. O’Keefe’s wallet containing $110 was stuffed between the console and the driver’s seat. The car’s engine was still running and its manual transmission was in neutral. A shell casing from a nine-millimeter handgun was found on the pavement.

Blood was found underneath one of the fingernails on O’Keefe’s left hand. DNA testing would later yield two incomplete profiles not suitable for uploading to any DNA database. One of the profiles was identified as coming from a male, but it was never matched to anyone.

In March, police interviewed Victoria Richardson, who said she was present in the parking lot the night of the murder along with her godson, a friend and the friend’s boyfriend. They were in a rental car—a black Chevrolet Malibu—smoking marijuana and listening to music. She said they heard a noise like someone was trying to break into a car by prying open a door. Richardson said she heard a car alarm go off and then saw a black Toyota with a white man wearing a red cap turned to the side drive out of the lot. Richardson said she drove out of the lot past the Mustang as the security vehicle (driven by Malone) arrived. She saw O’Keefe slumped over the steering wheel. Richardson also said she stopped on the way out when she saw Jennings and asked him what happened. She said Jennings told her he did not know.

The following day, Jennings told detectives that he had just started working at the lot a day earlier. When he heard the gunshots, he took cover because he was concerned that a gunman was still in the area. He said that two men in a truck came to the lot asking about the murder and if he had been on duty at the time—which so concerned him that he no longer wanted to work in that parking lot and had asked to be moved.

On February 25, Jennings quit the job saying he was working another job promoting a band. Three days later, detectives retrieved Jennings’ security uniform. Tests were negative for hairs or fibers that could be linked to O’Keefe or her clothing. There were no bloodstains or gunshot residue.

Detectives questioned Jennings again on March 23, 2000. A veteran of the Iraq War, Jennings was in the California National Guard and had a .380 caliber handgun. He said that he was an expert with an M16 rifle and an M9 Beretta, the military version of a nine-millimeter pistol.

Jennings said he saw no one leave the parking lot and surmised the gunman fled on foot. When prompted, he then recalled the woman in the car (Richardson) stopping to ask him what was going on.

Jennings was interviewed at greater length at a sheriff’s office on April 7, 2000. He spent two hours writing answers to a questionnaire and was then interviewed by detectives for more than four hours. Detectives said Jennings provided inaccurate details during that interview: the body was still twitching when he finally approached the car; there was brain matter behind O’Keefe’s head; O’Keefe had five gunshot wounds including one over her left eye. None of those details was true.

At the conclusion of the interview, the detectives told Jennings he was the primary suspect in the murder. No charges, however, were filed against Jennings.

O’Keefe’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Jennings. Although the lawsuit eventually was dismissed, Jennings was questioned under oath as part of that litigation. In 2005, O’Keefe’s family presented portions of the depositions to the prosecution. Deputy District Attorney Robert Foltz, who years earlier had declined to approve the filing of charges, later told the media that after that meeting he changed his mind.

In December 2005, Jennings was charged with second-degree murder with a firearm enhancement. Foltz told a reporter, “I can’t put my finger on precisely what the difference is, but it was clear we had a fileable case.”

Due to significant publicity in the Palmdale area, the case was transferred to a court in downtown Los Angeles. Jennings went to trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court in April 2008, but a mistrial was declared when the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. He went to trial again in February 2009, but another mistrial was declared when the jury was again unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

He went to trial a third time in December 2009. This trial was moved out of downtown Los Angeles to the Superior Court in Lancaster, California—the area where the crime had occurred.

No physical or forensic evidence linked him to the murder. The prosecution relied heavily upon the testimony of Mark Safarik, a former FBI agent, who told the jury that he had reviewed the evidence to figure out what happened, why it happened and what the perpetrator’s motive might have been. He was presented as an expert witness in “victimology,” the study of the victim to determine who might have killed her.

Safarik concluded there was no evidence to support any theory that an acquaintance committed the crime. Because no one other than her friend knew of O’Keefe’s decision to park at that lot, he said the crime was probably committed by someone who happened to be in the parking lot. He said that a scenario where someone was lurking in the lot, waiting for a victim, “stretches credibility.” He also ruled out someone following her from the rock video filming, and discarded any idea that it was a gang-related crime because he believed it was committed by a person acting alone.

A ballistics expert testified that the ammunition used in the crime was a combination of different types made by different manufacturers. That, the expert told the jury, supported the prosecution’s theory that Jennings’s military training provided him with the skill and knowledge to combine different types of bullets to achieve an even greater degree of damage.

On December 18, 2009, the jury convicted Jennings of second-degree murder with a firearm. He was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.

The Second District California Court of Appeal upheld the conviction. In 2013, Jennings filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus on his own—without a lawyer. In 2015, while the case was still pending, attorney Jeffrey Ehrlich learned of the case. After reading the appellate ruling, he offered to represent Jennings without charge.

Ehrlich requested that the habeas proceedings be put on hold while he conducted his own investigation. In the meantime, in July 2015, Ehrlich saw a news article about the formation of a conviction integrity unit in the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

In October 2015, Ehrlich presented the results of his investigation to the conviction integrity unit for consideration. In May 2016, Deputy District Attorney Kenneth Lynch, the head of the conviction integrity unit, agreed to re-examine the case.

In June 2016, Chief Deputy District Attorney John Spillane submitted a letter to Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William Ryan saying that the investigation had been completed and the prosecution agreed that Jennings’s conviction should be vacated.

The prosecution cited newly discovered evidence that suggested “a person or persons other than Mr. Jennings may have murdered Ms. O’Keefe.” Specifically, the prosecution said the evidence suggested that O’Keefe had been killed by gang members during a robbery. One of the gang members was arrested four months after O’Keefe’s murder for a carjacking and robbery during which he stole the victim’s Mustang at gunpoint with a nine-millimeter handgun. When arrested, the gang member was wearing an earring that matched the description of earrings that O’Keefe was wearing the night of her murder.

When Safarik, the “victimology” witness, was informed of the new evidence, he said he would no longer reach the same conclusions that he reached and testified about at Jennings’s trial.

A defense expert said the evidence showed O’Keefe was killed during a botched robbery, noting that her cell phone was missing and never found, and the glove compartment was ransacked. A ballistics expert who examined the case for the defense also said that the use of different types of ammunition was evidence of someone inexperienced with weapons—not an expert as the prosecution expert asserted at Jennings’s trial.

On June 23, 2016, Judge Ryan ordered Jennings released with an ankle monitor. On January 23, 2017, Judge Ryan granted the habeas petition, vacated Jennings’s conviction and found Jennings factually innocent. The prosecution dismissed the charges.

“This case marks the first time that the District Attorney’s Conviction Review Unit has recommended that a conviction be vacated and the defendant be found factually innocent,” Judge Ryan wrote in his decision.

The judge noted that the O’Keefe family still believed Jennings was guilty, but that the prosecution evidence “now expressly excludes Jennings as being the perpetrator. While to the O’Keefe’s and others it may feel it is unjust to now grant Jennings relief, it is even more unjust to keep a man in prison who has been excluded by the lawful authorities as the perpetrator.”

In March 2017, the state of California awarded Jennings $538,440 in compensation.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 2/20/2017
Last Updated: 8/10/2017
County:Los Angeles
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2000
Sentence:40 to life
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No