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Ex-security guard convicted in Palmdale parking lot murder

Raymond Lee Jennings is found guilty of second-degree murder in his third trial. Two previous trials in the 2000 shooting ended with hung juries. He faces 40 years to life in prison.

December 19, 2009|By Jack Leonard
  • Raymond Lee Jennings, left, and Michelle O'Keefe.
Raymond Lee Jennings, left, and Michelle O'Keefe. (Los Angeles Times )

A former security guard accused of fatally shooting an 18-year-old college student in a Palmdale parking lot nearly a decade ago was convicted of murder Friday, authorities said.

The verdict caps a lengthy legal saga that began when Raymond Lee Jennings first reported finding Michelle O'Keefe's body during a routine patrol of the park-and-ride lot.

Investigators found the victim, a student at Antelope Valley College, slumped in the front seat of her Ford Mustang. She had been shot four times in the chest and face.

Two previous trials ended with deadlocked juries. The case was moved earlier this year from downtown Los Angeles to Lancaster, where a third jury deliberated more than three weeks before rejecting first-degree murder charges and finding Jennings, 35, guilty of second-degree murder.

"I'm at a loss for words as to how thankful I am," said Jason O'Keefe, who was 12 when his older sister was killed. "I'm extremely glad that . . . justice has taken place."

Jennings is scheduled to be sentenced to 40 years to life in prison Jan. 22. His attorney, David Houchin, said Jennings, an Army National Guardsman and Iraq war veteran, is innocent and that he plans to ask a judge to order a new trial.

He said jurors were mistakenly given portions of transcripts from interviews given by his client that a judge had previously ruled could not be used during the trial.

Houchin said prosecutors failed to secure a conviction until the case was moved to a courthouse near where O'Keefe's family lived and where the killing had provoked the most outrage.

"Justice has not been done," he said.

O'Keefe was returning from Los Angeles where she had worked as an extra in a music video when she was shot on Feb. 22, 2000. The shooting occurred in the 100 block of East Avenue S, where she had left her car.

Detectives grew suspicious of Jennings when he told them the young woman was still alive when he found her but that he did not perform CPR because he feared contaminating the crime scene. But there was no physical evidence linking Jennings to the crime. No murder weapon was ever found.

O'Keefe's parents rented billboards and adorned them with their daughter's photo and the message: "I wasn't ready to die . . . at 18. Can you help catch my killer?" They also filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Jennings, who gave a statement during a deposition in the case.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Blake argued that Jennings gave inconsistent accounts in various statements to detectives and in his deposition, and revealed details that only the killer would know, such as the order of the shots that were fired. The prosecutor said the security guard probably made an advance toward O'Keefe and was rebuffed, leading to a confrontation and then the shooting. "It's an unspeakable crime for no good reason," Blake said after the verdict.

Defense attorneys argued that Jennings was only speculating about the killing during his interviews and said he inaccurately described one of the victim's wounds as a gunshot. Medical experts concluded that it was caused by a blow to the head.

Patricia O'Keefe, the victim's mother, said she had lost her best friend as well as her daughter, but felt more at peace after Friday's verdict. "I'm not as anxious knowing that Michelle can now rest in peace as well," she said.

jack.leonard@latimes.com

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