2nd hung jury in Palmdale (CA) Park & Ride murder case
- From: Millhaven <millhaven@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Sat, 28 Feb 2009 09:35:57 -0800 (PST)
2nd hung jury in Palmdale murder case
Jurors have announced they are deadlocked on a single murder charge in
the trial of a security guard accused of killing Michelle O'Keefe,
above, raising the unusual prospect of a third trial.
There's almost no physical evidence in the slaying of Michelle
O'Keefe, 18, but prosecutors say a security guard incriminated himself
with contradictory statements. Officials may pursue a third trial.
By Jack Leonard
February 24, 2009
When homicide detectives arrived at a wind-swept Palmdale parking lot
nine years ago, they found the bullet-torn body of 18-year-old
Michelle O'Keefe slumped in the front seat of her electric-blue
Mustang and virtually no evidence to identify her killer.
There was no handgun, no fingerprints. The only witness was a security
guard who said he heard the gunshots.
Palmdale murder trial Palmdale murder trialFor more than five years,
Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators struggled with the case
until they named the security guard, Raymond Lee Jennings, as the
killer and arrested him in 2005. Now law enforcement officials are
struggling again, this time to win a conviction.
Jurors last week announced that they were hopelessly deadlocked on the
single murder charge, marking the second time in less than a year that
a jury has failed to reach a verdict in the case.
The latest jury's 11-1 split in favor of a conviction raises the
unusual prospect of a third trial. As the district attorney's office
weighs whether to proceed, legal experts say a third attempt will give
prosecutors the opportunity to fill holes and resolve any problems
raised in previous trials. Last year, a jury hung 9 to 3 in favor of
If the case does go before another jury, legal experts say,
prosecutors will have to overcome what is often called the "CSI
effect" -- a desire among jurors to see the type of evidence, such as
fingerprints and DNA, that conclusively links suspects to crimes on
The case against Jennings, 34, relies so little on physical evidence
that the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Blake, described it as
an "anti-forensics case." Blake spent much of the last trial
attempting to show jurors how weather and other factors could have
helped Jennings commit the slaying without leaving physical clues.
"Jurors sometimes expect some type of forensic evidence when it's
perfectly reasonable that it didn't exist," said Jean Rosenbluth, a
professor of law at USC and a former federal prosecutor.
Blake argued that Jennings was betrayed by his own words. In a series
of statements to detectives and in a deposition in a civil lawsuit
brought by O'Keefe's parents, Jennings gave what Blake said were
inconsistent accounts about the night of the shooting and revealed key
details that only the killer would know.
"It doesn't seem that a verdict is unreachable," Blake said. "We just
had a single juror who differed, apparently strongly, in what the
evidence did and did not show."
Defense attorneys said they will ask Superior Court Judge Michael
Johnson to dismiss the murder charge at a hearing next month.
Prosecutors, they said, have failed to win a conviction because
Jennings is innocent and the case against him is thin.
"At least for some jurors, it's just not going to be enough to convict
somebody," said attorney David Houchin. "There is no physical
evidence. I think they are having a problem with that fact."
Jennings was working alone at the Park-and-Ride lot near Lake Palmdale
the evening of Feb. 22, 2000, when O'Keefe arrived about 9:20 p.m.
A friend dropped her off after the pair had spent the day working as
extras in a Kid Rock music video near downtown Los Angeles. O'Keefe, a
student at Antelope Valley College, was still dressed that chilly
evening in the clothes she had worn for the video shoot: a tube top,
short skirt and jacket.
Jennings told authorities he had heard gunshots from the direction of
the Mustang. Unarmed, the Army National Guardsman called a supervisor
and waited for her to arrive before he approached the car, he said.
According to prosecutors, Jennings initially said he had just
completed a patrol of the area where O'Keefe's car was parked when he
heard the shots. But in later statements, prosecutors said, he tried
to distance himself from the area.
His description of the victim's body was also at odds with that of his
supervisor's. The supervisor, who arrived at O'Keefe's car minutes
before Jennings did, said she saw that O'Keefe was already dead. But
Jennings told detectives he saw a light pulse in the victim's neck. He
said he did not try to revive the teenager for fear of contaminating
Asked by detectives what he believed the killer had done, Jennings
gave an account that prosecutors said bore a striking similarity to
the one forensic experts believe took place.
He appeared to know the order of shots fired, suggesting accurately
that the assailant accidentally fired one round into the asphalt
before shooting O'Keefe in the chest and then several times in the
face. He also appeared to know that she had not been raped.
"He's observing things only the killer would know," Blake said.
Jennings told authorities he thought O'Keefe might be a prostitute
because of the clothes she was wearing from the video shoot. Blake
argued that the security guard probably made an advance toward her and
was rebuffed, prompting Jennings to strike O'Keefe and then shoot
"I don't think he went there expecting to kill anyone, but he left
there a murderer," he said.
Most jurors found the theory compelling, even without physical
evidence tying Jennings to the crime.
"He just knew too much," said Tony Snyder, a 48-year-old collector for
the city's Department of Water and Power.
But defense attorneys insisted that Jennings, who served in Iraq and
has no criminal record, was guilty only of talking too much.
They criticized the sheriff's investigation as sloppy. Blood spatters
at the scene, they argued, showed that O'Keefe was shot outside the
car and was moved by her assailant onto the front seat. Such a move,
they argued, would have left tell-tale hair and other fibers from the
killer on O'Keefe's body. Yet none belonging to Jennings was ever
Houchin and his co-counsel, Jeff S. Yanuck, said that their client was
only speculating when he talked to detectives about the killer's
actions and that he inaccurately described one of the victim's wounds
as a gunshot. Medical experts concluded that the injury was caused by
a blow to the head.
"This guy is factually innocent, and it's not often that you get that
feeling about a homicide defendant," Houchin said.
The one holdout juror said she questioned Jennings' innocence but was
unconvinced that his statements proved his guilt.
"People's memories change over time. That's human nature," said the
juror, a 44-year-old secretary who declined to give her name. "One is
innocent until proven guilty."
O'Keefe's parents, Mike and Patricia O'Keefe, said that sitting
through the latest trial was "gut-wrenching" but that Jennings should
"It's certainly not going to bring her back," Mike O'Keefe said.
"However . . . heaven forbid that this happen to anyone else."