Judge throws out murder conviction of man in notorious Palmdale killing

“It’s official,” read the text message from his lawyer’s son.

Confused about what had happened, Raymond Lee Jennings rushed to his laptop Monday morning, opened his email and found a court document. He scrolled to Page 13 and burst into tears. Finally, his fight to clear his name was over — a judge had thrown out his murder conviction.

Superior Court Judge William Ryan wrote that new evidence seemed to “undermine the entire prosecution case and point unerringly to innocence or reduced culpability.”

Jennings had served 11 years behind bars in the slaying of Michelle O’Keefe, a college student shot inside her Mustang in a Palmdale parking lot in February 2000. He was released from prison last year after the district attorney’s office said prosecutors had lost confidence in the conviction, but the murder charge hung over him until Ryan’s ruling on Monday.

No reasonable jurors, the judge wrote, would have convicted Jennings — a security guard patrolling the area the night of the killing — if they’d been told at trial that gang members were also in the parking lot at the time of the shooting. In addition, sheriff’s investigators recently discovered new evidence that excludes Jennings as the killer.

Ryan said that the victim’s mother, Patricia O’Keefe, had recently addressed the court, saying that 32 jurors over the course of three trials, a judge and a panel of appellate justices had felt there was enough evidence to convict Jennings.

“But justice is not measured by the number of people who support the conviction,” Ryan wrote, adding that he hadn’t made the decision lightly and was mindful of the feelings of the victim’s family and friends.

“While to the O’Keefes and others it may feel it is unjust to now grant Jennings relief,” he wrote, “it is even more unjust to keep a man in prison who has been excluded by the lawful authorities.”

At the end of his ruling, Ryan included an ancient adage of common law jurisprudence: “Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall.”

O’Keefe’s slaying shocked the Antelope Valley community where she lived.

The TV show “America’s Most Wanted” featured the killing, and billboards in the area showed her picture along with the message, “Can you help catch my killer?” 

Meanwhile, investigators were zeroing in on Jennings. After initially deciding there wasn’t enough evidence against him, prosecutors charged Jennings with murder in December 2005.

At trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Blake told jurors that the $111 found in O’Keefe’s wallet proved it wasn’t a botched robbery. Instead, he argued, it was flirtation gone wrong.

“There is a sexual component to this crime,” he said. “That is the motive, and that’s how it began.”

Blake argued that Jennings told detectives and lawyers things that he couldn’t have known if he wasn’t the killer. He appeared to know the order of shots fired at the victim and that only one gun was used, Blake contended. 

The prosecutor also highlighted inconsistencies in the accounts Jennings gave authorities in several interviews about the night of the shooting. Initially, Jennings said no one else had been in the parking lot. Later, after prompting, he recalled another car leaving soon after the shooting.

After two downtown L.A. juries deadlocked, the case was moved to the Antelope Valley for a third trial in 2009, where he was convicted. 

Jennings swore he was innocent and begged a judge to release him — a plea that went unanswered until the summer of 2016, when prosecutors sent Ryan a letter saying they doubted his conviction based on new evidence.

After a request from prosecutors, Ryan ordered Jennings’ release last year, but he didn’t throw out the conviction until Monday.

In his ruling, Ryan said that no blood or gunpowder had been found on Jennings’ uniform and that male DNA found under the victim’s fingernails didn’t match Jennings’ DNA.

The judge also noted that a prosecution expert who testified at trial about the sexual motive — “the cornerstone” of the case, the judge said — had since changed his stance. Without that testimony, Ryan ruled, the prosecution’s case would have been “decidedly different.” 

In a written statement Monday, Blake, the trial prosecutor, said he’s “aware of additional facts that were not available to me at the time I tried Raymond Lee Jennings.”

“As a result,” he said, “I understand why my office has lost confidence in the conviction.”

Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement that the case shows her office is “dedicated to serving justice, even when it means reopening a closed case.”

Asking a judge to throw out the conviction in Jennings’ case  — one of more than 1,000 that prosecutors have been asked to look into —  marked the first big move by the district attorney’s unit dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions.

The victim’s family couldn’t be reached for comment, but R. Rex Parris, who represented the family in a civil suit against Jennings, said he had read the D.A.’s letter laying out some of the new evidence in the case.

“Had we known that at the time, we would’ve made different decisions,” he said, adding: “It’s not that he’s innocent, it’s that he’s now not guilty because this judge raised a reasonable doubt.”

In an interview Monday, Jennings said he felt a final weight come off his shoulders.

“It’s something I’ve been waiting for for a very long time,” he said. “I’m totally free.”

His pastor gave a sermon on Sunday about remembering past suffering and how it molds us. Jennings said he can’t stop thinking about that message or about one of his favorite Bible passages, which he discovered while confined in L.A. County Jail. Now, he knows the verses from Psalm 27 by heart.

“Deliver me not over unto the will of mine enemies: for false witnesses are risen up against me,” Jennings recited. “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord.”

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

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UPDATES:

6:05 p.m.: This article was updated with details from the judge’s ruling and comments from Jennings, the district attorney’s office and a civil attorney who represented the victim’s family.

This article was originally published at 12:40 p.m.

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