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D.A. seeks dismissal of 1984 murder case

Frank O'Connell spent 27 years in prison in the slaying of a South Pasadena man. A judge ruled he should get a new trial. D.A. won't retry him.

June 11, 2012|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times
  • Frank O'Connell with attorney Verna Wefald in court in April.
Frank O'Connell with attorney Verna Wefald in court in April. (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

For nearly three decades, Frank O'Connell longed for a day when authorities would say he had nothing to do with a South Pasadena killing he was charged with carrying out.

On Monday, Los Angeles County prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss the 1984 murder case against O'Connell but stopped short of declaring him innocent. District attorney's officials said they do not have enough evidence to retry O'Connell after his conviction was thrown out earlier this year but that a new investigation into the slaying was continuing.

O'Connell, who spent 27 years in prison after his 1985 conviction, walked out of the Pasadena courthouse saying he hoped authorities would make good on their word to continue their probe, saying it could lead to his final vindication.

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

In the meantime, O'Connell said, he planned to move on with his life and enjoy his freedom.

"I'm just as happy as can be. It's finally over," he said. "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."

The former Glendora High School football star was released on bail in April after a judge ruled he should be given a new trial. The district attorney's office had 60 days to decide whether to retry the case.

O'Connell, 54, said he hoped to one day sit down and talk with the family of the slain man, Jay French.

"I feel for the French family," O'Connell said. "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.... I am willing to do anything — anything — to help them find the truth."

Jolene Cordova, the victim's sister, rejected the possibility of sitting down with O'Connell, saying that she and her family believe he killed her brother and hope the district attorney's office prosecutes him again.

"What would there be to say? What would we talk about?" she asked. "The district attorney and the detectives, they only had 60 days to come up with 27 years of investigating. It was impossible to come up with something solid."

Detectives originally focused on O'Connell as a suspect after they learned he had a romantic relationship with French's ex-wife, who was embroiled in a bitter legal battle with the victim over custody of their son. O'Connell also matched a description from witnesses of a tall, slender, blond gunman.

O'Connell opted for trial by a judge rather than a jury and was convicted based largely on eyewitness evidence. He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. His cause was taken up by Centurion Ministries, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the release of inmates it contends were wrongfully convicted.

This year, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Suzette Clover ruled that O'Connell should be granted a new trial, finding that Sheriff's Department detectives failed to disclose records during the first trial that pointed to another possible suspect and may have improperly influenced witnesses.

Clover made the ruling after the prosecution's key witness 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 said Monday that he feels no anger about what occurred and hopes to make a new life for himself in Colorado working for a custom cabinet-making company run by the stepfather of his son, who was just 4 when O'Connell was sent to 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."

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