LOS ANGELES (CN) - An innocent man spent 27 years in prison for murder because the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department failed to disclose evidence that would have established his innocence, he claims in court.
Frank O'Connell sued Los Angeles County; the sheriff's detective assigned to his case, J.D. Smith; and the estate of deceased Det. Gilbert Parra, including his heir Eric Parra, in Federal Court.
O'Connell's conviction for the Jan. 5, 1984 shooting death of Jay French was overturned last year. O'Connell always denied any involvement in the murder.
French was maintenance man in South Pasadena.
The detectives zeroed in on O'Connell after French's ex-wife Jeanne Lyon told them she had been in a relationship with him, and because he matched the description of the gunman as tall, blonde and slender, O'Connell says in the lawsuit.
But O'Connell claims Lyon was locked in a ferocious battle with French over the custody of their son, Jay Jr., and that she later confessed to orchestrating the murder.
O'Connell claims his conviction "hinged" on the testimony of star witness Daniel Druecker, a tenant in the apartment complex where French was shot, and the testimony of Maurice Soucy, deceased.
"Those eyewitnesses made identifications from photo spreads prepared and presented to them by defendant detectives assigned to the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department," the complaint states. "The defendant detectives failed to provide critical exculpatory evidence that would have been helpful to the defense regarding the initial identifications by each of these two eyewitnesses and others."
O'Connell claims that though Dreuecker testified that the plaintiff was the shooter, he later admitted that he did not have his glasses on when he fleetingly glanced at the killer's profile, and that detectives "coerced" and "intimidated" him into picking O'Connell from a photo lineup.
And despite testimony that Soucy had seen O'Connell driving the yellow Pinto station wagon the killer drove away from the scene, Soucy did not immediately identify O'Connell in a photo lineup either, according to the complaint.
"Notes in the detectives' own handwriting show that Mr. Soucy, in fact, hesitated in identifying Mr. O'Connell as having driven a car similar to the one seen fleeing the murder scene. These notes were not disclosed to either the prosecution or the defense," the complaint states.
It adds: "Detectives engaged in activities to induce witnesses to identify plaintiff, and/or caused false evidence concerning the identifications to be provided to the prosecution and the defense in-the police reports they submitted. In addition, defendant Detective Smith reported that a third eyewitness, Arturo Villareal, initially told him that he could identify Mr. O'Connell as the killer who drove away from the murder scene. Detective Smith later testified to this although Mr. Villareal himself denied this statement, and insisted that he could not, and never could, identify Mr. O'Connell as the killer."
O'Connell claims that several people testified that he was with them pm the night French was killed, but that the eyewitness identifications "outweighed this testimony in the trier of fact."
"Not only were there several witnesses who testified that Mr. O'Connell was with them at the time of the murder, there is now very strong evidence that Jay French's ex-wife orchestrated the murder," the complaint states. "She has told several people that Mr. O'Connell was innocent, and that she hired someone to kill Jay French. She repeated this to several individuals on separate occasions, and over many years. She wanted Mr. French dead so that she could regain custody of their son."
French's wife, Gina, was by his side when he died, according to the Los Angeles Times.
According to the complaint, "As he lay dying, Mr. French declared that 'that fucker in the yellow Pinto shot me' and that 'he was going to die and it had to do with something with Jeanne [Lyon], it looked like somebody she hangs around with or somebody she hung around with.'" (Brackets in complaint.)
Though prosecutors used the dying words to point the finger at O'Connell, detectives knew of an earlier attempt on French's life, where Lyon and another man tried to run him over while he was on his motorcycle, O'Connell says in the complaint.
"That information was also not disclosed to the prosecution," the complaint states.
Innocence group Centurion Ministries interviewed five witnesses who said Lyon had confessed to orchestrating the murder, according to the complaint.
Another of Lyon's ex-husbands claimed that she had admitted paying a hit man $10,000 to kill French, O'Connell says in the complaint.
After his release from Solano State Prison in Vacaville, O'Connell moved to Colorado to be close to his son, who was 4 when his father was convicted by a Pasadena court.
O'Connell seeks punitive damages for civil rights violations, and costs.
He is represented by Barrett Litt with Kaye, McLane, Bednarski & Litt, of Pasadena.
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