PASADENA – A Glendora man who had his conviction for the 1984 murder of a South Pasadena man overturned last month was expected to be freed following an emotional hearing Friday in Pasadena Superior Court.
Throughout his 27 years behind bars, Frank O’Connell, 54, has maintained that he did not shoot and kill 27-year-old Jay French in South Pasadena on Jan. 5, 1984.
Finding major problems with O’Connell’s murder trial, Pasadena Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover threw out the conviction March 29.
Clover cited several issues that she said denied him a fair trial. Key eye witnesses in the case have recanted their testimony and Clover found that potentially important information, including hand-written notes by detectives containing potentially exculpatory information, had not been turned over to the defense.
But O’Connell’s release was not arranged until Friday’s followup hearing.
Deputy District Attorney Scott Goodwin announced plans at the hearing to re-try the murder case, and a pre-trial hearing was set for May 18 in Pasadena Superior Court.
Still, O’Connell was expected to be freed within hours, or by early next week at the latest, after Judge Suzette Clover set his bail at $75,000 – the same amount initially set by the presiding judge in the first murder trial. Murder suspects arrested today are generally held in lieu of $1 million bail.
PASADENA — A judge has overturned the conviction of a 54-year-old Glendora man who has been behind bars for 27 years in connection with the killing of a South Pasadena man, officials said Wednesday.
Frank O’Connell was convicted in 1985 of the shooting death of 27-year-old Jay French near French’s home in the 1800 block of State Street in South Pasadena.
But after O’Connell has served half his life in prison, Pasadena Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover threw out the conviction last week, citing in her ruling serious problems with the investigation and information withheld from the defense that deprived O’Connell of a fair trial.
Among the reasons Clover listed in her decision: a key eyewitness who has since recanted his testimony; detectives’ notes withheld from the defense; and a previous attempt on French’s life that the defense was not informed about.
“It’s a lifetime that he spent in prison for something that he did not commit, and it’s a crime how poorly our judicial system handled it,” O’Connell’s mother Rosemarie O’Connell said.
“To be very honest, for 27 years, it was very hard to think this day would come, and it finally happened,” she continued.
Though Suzette threw out the ruling March 29, attorneys and family members didn’t learn of it until this week, after receiving notice by mail, officials said.
The prosector handling the case, Juan Mejia, declined to comment Wednesday.
French’s sister, Jolene Cordova, told the Los Angles Times that her family was disappointed with the decision and that she believed Frank O’Connell is guilty of the killing.
A poor investigation was to blame for the conviction being overturned, she said.
When he was accused nearly three decades ago, Frank O’Connell waived his right to a jury, and instead the trial was heard by Pasadena Superior Court Judge Sally Disco, who convicted him.
O’Connell had been involved in a relationship with French’s ex-wife, and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials at the time said that several witnesses spotted O’Connell fleeing the scene following the killing on Jan. 5, 1984.
“This is a case based solely on eyewitness testimony,” Clover wrote. “No physical evidence or other corroboration was presented. The new information presented at the habeas hearing casts legitimate doubt on the accuracy of the eyewitness identifications.”
A key eyewitness who identified O’Connell as the killer at trial, Daniel Drucker, has since recanted his testimony, “explaining that he felt pressured by detectives to identify (O’Connell) and was too intimidated by the court process to express his uncertainty,” Clover wrote.
Clover wrote in her decision that in hindsight, two other witness identifications used to convict O’Connell were questionable as well.
Additionally, handwritten detectives’ notes that were only recently discovered by the defense were also a key factor in Clover’s decision.
In the notes, detectives described a previous murder attempt on French from 1980, in which his ex-wife and her then-boyfriend, who resembled O’Connell in appearance, allegedly tried to run him over with a car, according to court documents.
That previous attack was never disclosed to O’Connell’s defense attorneys, Clover wrote.
Prosecutors used French’s dying words as evidence against O’Connell, according to the ruling.
“That (expletive) in the yellow Pinto shot me,” French said, according to court documents. “…it had to do with something with (his ex-wife) Jeannie Lyon. It looked like somebody she hangs around with or somebody she hung around with.”
“The (trial judge) concluded Mr. French’s dying declaration pointed solely to (O’Connell) as the former boyfriend of Mr. French’s ex-wife. However, knowledge of the prior attempt on his life gives Mr. French’s dying declaration additional meaning as an alternative interpretation which if known, may well have altered the outcome of this case,” Clover wrote.
The failure to disclose the detectives’ notes containing exculpatory information constituted a Brady violation and deprived (O’Connell) of a fair trial, Clover wrote.<NO1> “The discrepancy between the notes and the police reports is more than significant.”<NO>
Frank O’Connell has always maintained his innocence, his mother said, even when admitting guilt may have set him free during parole hearings.
Family members, too, never believed he was responsible for the killing, Rosemarie O’Connell added.
“Like all of us, he’s very excited,” the mother added. “He is in very good spirits and can’t wait for the (release) day to come.”
Frank O’Connell has a wife, an adult son and adult step-children waiting for his him, family members said.
“We’re elated,” said attorney Verna Wefald, who represented O’Connell along with co-counsel Peter Camiel. “We’ve always believed that Frank O’Connel was innocent, that we had a good case, legally.”
O’Connell is expected to be released from prison following a hearing April 18, family members said. Prosecutors will have an opportunity to re-try the case if they choose. His lawyers believe that is unlikely.
“We’re confident that freedom is around the corner,” Wefald said. “The wheels of justice grind slowly, as they say, but hopefully they’ll keep on grinding.”
The attorneys work for the New Jersey-based organization Centurion Ministries, dedicated to freeing wrongly convicted inmates.
Frank O’Connell’s sister, Annajean Arbogast, said although her family does not believe Frank O’Connell killed Jay French, they nonetheless feel for the French family.
“We certainly have a lot compassion for the French family, and understand their pain,” she said.
Frank O’Connell grew up in Glendora and graduated Glendora High School.
“I really don’t know what is going to be next,” Rosemarie O’Connell said. “I just want him out of there. To have him home, to put this behind us and go forward.”