November 21, 2017
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $15 million payout today -- the largest single-plaintiff settlement in at least a decade -- for a man who was imprisoned for 27 years for a 1984 murder he said he didn't commit.
Frank O'Connell was convicted in 1985 of gunning down 27-year-old Jay French in the parking lot of the victim's South Pasadena apartment complex on Jan. 5, 1984. French and his ex-wife had been fighting a long battle for custody of their son and friends told detectives that the ex-wife had talked about killing French to gain custody.
A neighbor in the complex picked out O'Connell from police photos and said the dying man identified his killer as the "guy in the yellow Pinto," according to a summary of the case provided by county lawyers.
Another man, who lived across the street from French's ex-wife, said he had jump-started O'Connell's yellow Pinto on multiple occasions and that he had seen O'Connell kissing the ex-wife in her front yard while her new husband was at work. Detectives ultimately discovered that O'Connell had an affair with the ex-wife and moved in with her during the summer before the shooting.
O'Connell opted for trial by a judge without a jury and was convicted in April 1985 and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Investigators for Centurion Ministries Inc., a nonprofit group that investigates potential cases of factual innocence, found exculpatory evidence not disclosed by prosecutors at trial.
That evidence included a prior alleged murder attempt on French by another boyfriend of his ex-wife shortly after the court first awarded French custody. The witness who picked O'Connell out of a "six-pack" of photos also later recanted and said he had barely seen the shooter and felt pressured to make an identification.
In March 2012, a court granted O'Connell's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. When prosecutors declined to retry the case, O'Connell was released from prison. Roughly a year later, O'Connell and his son Nicholas filed suit against Los Angeles County, alleging civil rights violations. The county spent nearly $1.4 million in legal fees and costs on the case before lawyers recommended settlement, citing the risks and uncertainties of litigation.
The settlement is the largest between the county and a single individual in at least the last decade, according to a county spokesman, and substantial enough that it is expected to be paid out over a period of two years. O'Connell, his son and his civil rights attorneys were expected to discuss the settlement outside the Pasadena Superior Court, where O'Connell was convicted, this afternoon.