Convicted murderer who proclaimed innocence to be set free
A former Glendora High School football star who spent 27 years behind bars for a murder he insists he did not commit will likely soon walk free after a judge on Friday ordered his release on bail.
After the order was announced, Frank O'Connell, who sat in the same courtroom where a judge convicted and sentenced him to life in prison in 1985, turned toward his relatives in the audience, his lips trembling while members of his family sobbed with relief.
"I'm going home," O'Connell, 54, said as he walked past photographers in the Pasadena courtroom after the emotional hearing.
O'Connell's supporters must post $75,000 bail -- a figure they said they were ready to put up. He could be released as soon as today.
"I'm just on cloud nine," his mother, Rosemarie, said after the hearing. "I've always known that he's innocent. ... I'm going to hug him. I'm going to not let him go."
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover last month ruled that O'Connell should be granted a new trial in the 1984 fatal shooting of a maintenance man in South Pasadena. The judge found that during the first trial, Sheriff's Department detectives failed to disclose records pointing to another possible suspect, and may have improperly influenced witnesses.
Clover made the ruling after the prosecution's key witness recanted, telling the judge at a hearing last year that he never got a good look at the killer and felt pressured to make a positive identification after tentatively identifying O'Connell as the gunman during a photo lineup.
O'Connell, whose conviction was based largely on eyewitness testimony, has always maintained that he had nothing to do with the killing.
Detectives began looking at O'Connell as a possible suspect while they followed up on the victim's dying words. As he lay wounded, Jay French said that his ex-wife, who he was fighting in court over custody of their son, had something to do with the shooting, they said.
Detectives began focusing on O'Connell after learning that he had recently had a romantic relationship with the victim's ex-wife, who was never charged in the case. O'Connell also matched a description from witnesses of a tall, slender, blond gunman.
Members of French's family attended Friday's hearing wearing photos of the victim and his young son pinned to their chests. Several said after the hearing that they believe O'Connell is guilty and that they hope prosecutors will retry him.
The district attorney's office is expected to announce at a hearing on May 18 whether it has enough evidence to retry the case.
-- Jack Leonard and Irfan Khan
Photo: Frank O'Connell with his defense attorney, Verna Wefald. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times