Man convicted of murdering college student set free amid questions over guilt

Raymond Lee Jennings, right, flanked by his attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, was ordered released from state prison after prosecutors express doubts about his guilt. Jennigs was convicted in the 2000 murder of college student Michelle O¿Keefe.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

An Iraq war veteran convicted in the 2000 slaying of college student Michelle O’Keefe was released from state prison Thursday after prosecutors expressed doubts about his guilt.

“The people no longer have confidence in the conviction,” Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace told a judge who ordered Raymond Lee Jennings released. Grace suggested that another person was the killer.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan ordered that Jennings be released immediately from the courthouse but required electronic monitoring for Jennings because the case against him has not been dismissed.

Jennings, who worked as a security guard at the Palmdale parking lot where O’Keefe was found, smiled broadly as entered the courtroom.

“He was happy to know, after 11 years, his ordeal is over,” his attorney, Jeffrey Ehrlich, said outside court.


But Michael O’Keefe, the victim’s father, outside court, continued to insist that Jennings killed his daughter.

“Based on what I know, Mr. Jennings is still guilty until proven otherwise,” O’Keefe said. “Nothing is worse than losing our kids.”

Here’s what we know about the case.

Question: Who is Jennings and how did he come under suspicion?

Answer: Jennings was an Army National Guardsman and Iraq war veteran.

Detectives grew suspicious when Jennings told them the young woman was still alive when he found her but that he did not perform CPR because he feared contaminating the crime scene. There was no physical evidence linking Jennings to the crime, and no weapon was found.

Two juries in Los Angeles deadlocked on the case. But prosecutors got a conviction during a third trial, which was held in Lancaster, in the region where O’Keefe lived.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Blake argued during the trial that Jennings gave inconsistent accounts in statements to detectives and in his deposition and revealed details that only the killer would know, such as the order of the shots that were fired.

Q: What is the new evidence?

A: Prosecutors are not saying. But Jennings’ attorney offered some clues.

Ehrlich said the new investigation uncovered evidence suggesting a robbery or carjacking and that Jennings had nothing to do with it.

“There were other people at the scene, and D.A.’s office was aware of them, but they only looked at Mr. Jennings,” he said.

In a letter to prosecutors, Ehrlich outlined what he considers the weaknesses of their case. The letter noted that there were several people in the parking lot at the time of the killing who were smoking pot and listening to music. The letter quoted one of the witnesses as saying she saw a man in Toyota Tercel flee the scene.

Ehrlich argued that investigators failed to look into whether other people in the parking lot might be involved in the murder. He noted in the letter that one of the people in the parking lot that night had ties to street gangs and in the years since was involved in criminal activities.

The prosecutor said the security guard probably made an advance toward O’Keefe and was rebuffed, leading to a confrontation and then the shooting.

“It’s an unspeakable crime for no good reason,” Blake said after the verdict.

Defense attorneys said that Jennings was only speculating about the killing during his interviews and said he inaccurately described one of the victim’s wounds as a gunshot. Medical experts concluded that it was caused by a blow to the head.

Q: What’s next?

A: Prosecutors have said the new investigation is continuing. It’s unclear whether they plan to charge a new suspect in the killing.


6:09 p.m.: This article has been edited throughout and updated to say that Jennings was released from prison.

12:13 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Michelle O’Keefe’s father.

11:33 a.m. This article has been updated with the order to free Jennings.

This article was originally published at 8:34 a.m.