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Raymond Lee Jennings' release demonstrates the value of Jackie Lacey's conviction review unit

Raymond Lee Jennings' release demonstrates the value of Jackie Lacey's conviction review unit
Raymond Lee Jennings, convicted in the 2000 slaying of college student Michelle O'Keefe, was ordered released from state prison Thursday after prosecutors express doubts about his guilt. (Los Angeles Times)

So many questions must still be answered in the case of Raymond Lee Jennings, the security guard who was tried three times and finally convicted of the murder of 18-year-old Michelle O'Keefe in a Palmdale parking lot in 2000 – but who on Thursday was released from prison after a review of the case by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Jennings has always insisted on his innocence but was found guilty in 2009 and sentenced to 40 years in prison. The case has not been dismissed and for now Jennings must wear an electronic monitoring device. The D.A.'s investigation is continuing.

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Just what was the new evidence that led prosecutors to go to court on Thursday to seek Jennings' release? If Jennings did not commit the crime, who did? What part or parts of the justice system failed if the conviction was in error, and how can similar failures be prevented in the future?

And perhaps the most troubling question: How common are miscarriages of justice of the sort that the district attorney's office apparently believes took place in the Jennings case?

Common enough to spur a growing consensus nationwide that prosecutors should seriously consider requests for review from prison inmates and investigations by law school innocence projects and devote resources to re-examining closed cases.  Several district attorney's offices have established conviction review units, and to her credit L.A. Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey followed suit with such a unit last year and won funding from the Board of Supervisors.

To date, 812 cases have been submitted, of which 80 have been closed and 267 remain under review. Eleven have advanced to a second review process. Jennings' case went to a conviction review committee, whose members concluded that they had lost faith in the conviction.

In announcing her intention to create the unit a year ago, Lacey said she was especially interested in cases in which new evidence became available. On Wednesday she said that such evidence in the Jennings case was "pretty strong" but declined to describe it because of the continuing investigation.

Lacey also said the prosecutor in Jennings' trial did "the absolute best job he could" with the evidence available at the time.

But the questions remain: What went wrong? Was there misconduct? Were there mistakes by defense lawyers? What lessons were learned that will prevent future false convictions?

The priority for Jennings will no doubt be to secure permanent release. The district attorney, meanwhile, may have another suspect in mind. But the other questions must be answered before too long, and publicly, if the district attorney's conviction review unit is to truly fulfill its mission.

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