LOS ANGELES (CN) – Frank O’Connell exhaled Tuesday afternoon after the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $15 million to settle his wrongful murder conviction, for which he served 27 years in prison.
During that time, O’Connell did not watch his son grow up, who was also named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in 2013.
A judge sentenced O’Connell to 25 years to life in prison in the murder of Jay French, who was shot and killed at an apartment complex in South Pasadena in January 1984.
An eyewitness pointed O’Connell out in a police lineup, despite three people who provided an alibi for him. During the time the victim was in a custody battle with his ex-wife, with whom O’Connell was romantically involved in the year before the murder.
A judge overturned O’Connell’s conviction in 2012, finding detectives J.D. Smith and Gilbert Parra never disclosed an eyewitness identified another person in a police lineup, and did not provide all their evidence to defense attorneys at the time, according to the suit. O’Connell also named the two detectives in his lawsuit.
County documents detail several other factors not considered during the murder trial, including an internal memo from the South Pasadena Police Department about an anonymous phone call made in 1984, which was forwarded to the Altadena Sheriff’s Office. In that call, a man said French’s ex-wife paid him to kill French after she lost custody of her son. The caller offered details about payments exchanged between several people and even provided an address in Pasadena.
Kate Germond, executive director of Centurion Ministries, an investigation group focused on overturning convictions for innocent people in prison, collected information on O’Connell’s case for about 12 years.
“It seemed pretty clear, pretty quickly that he was innocent. The man had no prior criminal record … he is suddenly just out of the blue going to kill a man,” said Germond. “When I read the police report, the (eyewitness) gave a very detailed description of the gun, but not of the person.”
She added, “Frank O’Connell was treated very badly by the sheriff’s office and prosecutor. This is a fierce, horrible, ugly battle that they had to go through. In a way they have to prove their innocence again, but in the process they learn how much the county knew about his innocence.”
O’Connell’s attorney Barry Litt, with Kaye McLane Bednarski and Litt, said the case is important for several reasons, most of all the incarceration of an innocent man.
“It laid bare things that are well known: the way people are wrongfully convicted, and the way it happens to them,” Litt said in an interview. “Manipulating witnesses and hiding evidence by detectives which is what happened here.”
He added: “We’ve written a large letter to the board of supervisors trying to emphasize that this is not a onetime event.”
A phone call to the county counsel’s office seeking comment was not immediately returned by press time.
On Tuesday afternoon, O’Connell walked along Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena with a $15 million settlement in view.
“I have a sense of closure right now about the case itself,” O’Connell said in an interview. “It is absolutely over today. I’m a little discouraged that we didn’t get an apology from the sheriff’s department; I assume we never will.”
He added, “I’m hoping this settlement brings awareness so that they can fix some of these issues with identification issues, the lineup processes. And the way the system treats people that are exonerated.”
He said Los Angeles County residents should be outraged that a large settlement came out of the actions of the criminal court system.
“I can’t make up for what they took from me, but I can certainly start today with a new beginning and just take one foot forward over the other and just go with it,” he said. “Enjoy life best I can.”
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