2nd hung jury in Palmdale murder case

When homicide detectives arrived at a wind-swept Palmdale parking lot nine years ago, they found the bullet-torn body of 18-year-old Michelle O'Keefe slumped in the front seat of her electric-blue Mustang and virtually no evidence to identify her killer.

There was no handgun, no fingerprints. The only witness was a security guard who said he heard the gunshots.

For more than five years, Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators struggled with the case until they named the security guard, Raymond Lee Jennings, as the killer and arrested him in 2005. Now law enforcement officials are struggling again, this time to win a conviction.

Jurors last week announced that they were hopelessly deadlocked on the single murder charge, marking the second time in less than a year that a jury has failed to reach a verdict in the case.

The latest jury's 11-1 split in favor of a conviction raises the unusual prospect of a third trial. As the district attorney's office weighs whether to proceed, legal experts say a third attempt will give prosecutors the opportunity to fill holes and resolve any problems raised in previous trials. Last year, a jury hung 9 to 3 in favor of guilt.

If the case does go before another jury, legal experts say, prosecutors will have to overcome what is often called the "CSI effect" -- a desire among jurors to see the type of evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA, that conclusively links suspects to crimes on television shows.

The case against Jennings, 34, relies so little on physical evidence that the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Blake, described it as an "anti-forensics case." Blake spent much of the last trial attempting to show jurors how weather and other factors could have helped Jennings commit the slaying without leaving physical clues.

"Jurors sometimes expect some type of forensic evidence when it's perfectly reasonable that it didn't exist," said Jean Rosenbluth, a professor of law at USC and a former federal prosecutor.

Blake argued that Jennings was betrayed by his own words. In a series of statements to detectives and in a deposition in a civil lawsuit brought by O'Keefe's parents, Jennings gave what Blake said were inconsistent accounts about the night of the shooting and revealed key details that only the killer would know.

"It doesn't seem that a verdict is unreachable," Blake said. "We just had a single juror who differed, apparently strongly, in what the evidence did and did not show."

Defense attorneys said they will ask Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson to dismiss the murder charge at a hearing next month. Prosecutors, they said, have failed to win a conviction because Jennings is innocent and the case against him is thin.

"At least for some jurors, it's just not going to be enough to convict somebody," said attorney David Houchin. "There is no physical evidence. I think they are having a problem with that fact."

Jennings was working alone at the Park-and-Ride lot near Lake Palmdale the evening of Feb. 22, 2000, when O'Keefe arrived about 9:20 p.m.

A friend dropped her off after the pair had spent the day working as extras in a Kid Rock music video near downtown Los Angeles. O'Keefe, a student at Antelope Valley College, was still dressed that chilly evening in the clothes she had worn for the video shoot: a tube top, short skirt and jacket.

Jennings told authorities he had heard gunshots from the direction of the Mustang. Unarmed, the Army National Guardsman called a supervisor and waited for her to arrive before he approached the car, he said.

According to prosecutors, Jennings initially said he had just completed a patrol of the area where O'Keefe's car was parked when he heard the shots. But in later statements, prosecutors said, he tried to distance himself from the area.

His description of the victim's body was also at odds with that of his supervisor's. The supervisor, who arrived at O'Keefe's car minutes before Jennings did, said she saw that O'Keefe was already dead. But Jennings told detectives he saw a light pulse in the victim's neck. He said he did not try to revive the teenager for fear of contaminating the scene.

Asked by detectives what he believed the killer had done, Jennings gave an account that prosecutors said bore a striking similarity to the one forensic experts believe took place.

He appeared to know the order of shots fired, suggesting accurately that the assailant accidentally fired one round into the asphalt before shooting O'Keefe in the chest and then several times in the face. He also appeared to know that she had not been raped.

"He's observing things only the killer would know," Blake said.

Jennings told authorities he thought O'Keefe might be a prostitute because of the clothes she was wearing from the video shoot. Blake argued that the security guard probably made an advance toward her and was rebuffed, prompting Jennings to strike O'Keefe and then shoot her.

"I don't think he went there expecting to kill anyone, but he left there a murderer," he said.

Most jurors found the theory compelling, even without physical evidence tying Jennings to the crime.

"He just knew too much," said Tony Snyder, a 48-year-old collector for the city's Department of Water and Power.

But defense attorneys insisted that Jennings, who served in Iraq and has no criminal record, was guilty only of talking too much.

They criticized the sheriff's investigation as sloppy. Blood spatters at the scene, they argued, showed that O'Keefe was shot outside the car and was moved by her assailant onto the front seat. Such a move, they argued, would have left tell-tale hair and other fibers from the killer on O'Keefe's body. Yet none belonging to Jennings was ever found.

Houchin and his co-counsel, Jeff S. Yanuck, said that their client was only speculating when he talked to detectives about the killer's actions and that he inaccurately described one of the victim's wounds as a gunshot. Medical experts concluded that the injury was caused by a blow to the head.

"This guy is factually innocent, and it's not often that you get that feeling about a homicide defendant," Houchin said.

The one holdout juror said she questioned Jennings' innocence but was unconvinced that his statements proved his guilt.

"People's memories change over time. That's human nature," said the juror, a 44-year-old secretary who declined to give her name. "One is innocent until proven guilty."

O'Keefe's parents, Mike and Patricia O'Keefe, said that sitting through the latest trial was "gut-wrenching" but that Jennings should be retried.

"It's certainly not going to bring her back," Mike O'Keefe said. "However . . . heaven forbid that this happen to anyone else."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°