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Judge dismisses 1984 murder case against man who proclaims innocence

June 11, 2012 | 11:05 am

Frank O'Connell has spent 27 years in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit. Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover overturned his conviction in April and released him on $75,000 bail.

The criminal case against a former Glendora High School football star who spent 27 years behind bars for a murder he insists he did not commit was dismissed Monday, ending a nearly three-decade legal saga that saw his conviction thrown out.

"I’m just as happy as can be. It's finally over," Frank O'Connell said in a phone interview following the hearing in Pasadena court. "I walked into that courtroom 27 years ago thinking I was walking out, and I walked out today for sure a free man. There's a weight off my shoulders."

Los Angeles County prosecutors asked for the case to be dismissed, telling Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover that they did not have enough evidence to retry O'Connell, said O'Connell's lawyer, Verna Wefald. She said prosecutors indicated that the investigation into the 1984 fatal shooting of Jay French, a South Pasadena maintenance man, would continue.

O'Connell, 54, said he hoped that the investigation would finally prove his innocence.

"If they could find the people involved, I could be totally exonerated," he said.

O'Connell was released on bail in April after Clover ruled he should be given a new trial. The judge found that during the first trial in 1985, Sheriff's Department detectives failed to disclose records pointing to another possible suspect, and may have improperly influenced witnesses. 

At a hearing last year, the prosecution's key witness from the first trial recanted, saying 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.

O'Connell said Monday that he feels no anger about what occurred and hopes to restart his life in Colorado working for a custom cabinet-making company run by the stepfather of his son, who was just 4 when O'Connell was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

"Anger and frustration just drag you down," he said. "I don’t want to hate on people. I can't get my time back. I won't be able to fix my son’s owies and take him to school, so there’s no sense in being mad at it. Just enjoy today."

O'Connell expressed gratitude to the organization that championed his case, Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the release of inmates it contends were wrongfully convicted. He said he hoped one day to talk to French's family, who have expressed dismay at O'Connell's release and said they believe he was responsible for the killing.

"I feel for the French family. It’s a terrible thing that happened. They thought for years that I had my hands involved in this. I can’t change how they feel," he said. "I am willing to do anything -- anything -- to help them find the truth."


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Photo: Frank O'Connell has spent 27 years in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit. Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover overturned his conviction in April. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times