Families divided as murder conviction overturned
Frank O’Connell sat in the same Pasadena courtroom where more than a quarter of a century ago he was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit.
In front of him, a new judge on Friday delivered the words he had long awaited -– he could go free on bail.
Behind him, his relatives sobbed with relief. His lips trembling and with tears in his eyes, O’Connell turned to look at his son, who was just 4 years old when a judge convicted him of gunning down a maintenance man at a South Pasadena apartment complex.
Nearby, O’Connell’s mother blew kisses at him. Then he hugged one of the attorneys on a legal team that had worked for 15 years to win his freedom.
“I'm going home,” said a still-handcuffed O’Connell as he walked past photographers in the packed courtroom.
The scene capped an emotional hearing that followed Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover’s decision last month that O'Connell should receive a new trial. The judge found that sheriff's detectives during his first trial failed to disclose records pointing to another possible suspect and may have improperly influenced witnesses.
On Friday, Clover repeated that O’Connell’s right to a fair trial was violated in 1985 when the “evidence was withheld from both the [prosecution] and the defense that goes directly to the issue of Mr. O’Connell’s guilt or innocence.” Back then, O’Connell had opted for a judge to determine his guilt rather than a jury, and the evidence that was used to convict him “has now been, to some degree, called into question,” Clover said.
Over the objections of the district attorney’s office, which had argued that the conviction should stand, the judge set O’Connell’s bail at $75,000 -– the same as during his original trial.
“I'm just on cloud 9,” said his mother, Rosemarie, as her family waited in hopes of her son’s quick release. “I've always known that he's innocent.... I'm going to hug him. I'm going to not let him go.”
Prosecutors, however, are still reviewing whether there is enough evidence to retry O’Connell for the shooting of Jay French. French’s relatives attended Friday’s court hearing wearing photos pinned to their chests showing him smiling with his son on his lap.
They said they believe O’Connell is guilty and hope prosecutors will retry the case. The district attorney’s office is expected to announce a decision by May 18.
“He’s going to be out, but Jay’s gone,” said French’s niece, Gina DeVito.
French’s wife, Gina, rushed to his side shortly after he was shot Jan. 5, 1984. She recalled Friday how her dying husband told her that he believed his ex-wife, Jeanne Lyon, had something to do with the shooting. Lyon and French were embroiled in a bitter custody battle over their son, Jay Jr.
Then pregnant with the victim’s son, Gina French attended Friday’s hearing with the boy, Bryan, now 27.
“The pain will never stop,” she said.
O’Connell’s family expressed sympathy for French’s relatives but said they had lost O’Connell for nearly three decades as a result of his wrongful conviction.
“Our nightmare is over, but theirs is not,” said one of O’Connell’s sisters, Kathy Baker. “You only dream about this day, but you never believe it will happen.”
-- Jack Leonard
Photo: Frank O'Connell with his attorney Verna Wefald. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times