CAALA member overcomes tremendous odds in the criminal justice system
Every once in a while you come across a story that makes you proud to be a lawyer and celebrates the human spirit in overcoming tremendous odds in pursuing justice. This is one such story. It involves one of our very own, CAALA Board member and Advocate editor-in-chief, Jeff Ehrlich, and the pro bono work he did with his son, Clint. Together, Jeff and Clint represented Raymond Jennings, an Iraq-war veteran who had been wrongfully convicted of murdering Michelle O’Keefe.
In February 2000, Ms. O’Keefe was shot multiple times in a Park-and-Ride lot in Palmdale. Ray Jennings was the security guard on duty at the time of the shooting and had called in the “shots fired” report. The case had stalled for five years, but in November 2005, the DA’s Office filed charges against Ray. He was convicted in 2010 after three trials, and sentenced to 40 years to life.
Clint serendipitously learned about Ray’s case in May 2015 while surfing the internet. He saw a link to a 2010 Dateline special about the case and clicked on it. After watching the program and then digging into the case further, he became convinced that Ray had been wrongfully convicted. He urged Jeff to take on Ray’s habeas case pro bono in an attempt to free him. Jeff agreed.
While their efforts were under way, Jeff and Clint submitted a request to the newly-created “Conviction Review Unit” (CRU) of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Based on the information presented by Jeff and Clint, the CRU decided to re-open the investigation into the O’Keefe murder.
On June 23, 2016, at the request of the CRU, Ray was released from custody on his own recognizance, but the fate of his conviction would depend on the outcome of the new investigation.
By December 2016, even though the CRU investigation was still ongoing, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s detectives and District Attorneys who were involved in the case had concluded that Ray had no connection to the murder. Two days before a January 5, 2017, hearing on Ray’s case, the District Attorney’s Office filed a letter with the court in which the office (a) urged the court to grant Ray’s petition for habeas corpus; and (b) stipulated that Ray satisfied the legal standard for a finding of factual innocence under California law.
During the January 5, 2017 hearing, the court received a confidential, 45-minute briefing on the status of the CRU investigation. It also heard statements from Michelle O’Keefe’s mother and father. They had not yet been made privy to any of the new information in the case and remained convinced that Ray was guilty. They urged the court to send Ray back to prison.
The court took the matter under submission, and on January 23, 2017 — six months to the day after Ray was released from prison — the court filed an order granting Ray’s petition for habeas corpus, vacating his conviction, and dismissing the charges against him.
There remained one more pending item in the case: a motion for a finding of factual innocence that the District Attorney stipulated should be granted. The court had held that motion in abeyance pending a showing by the District Attorney’s Office that it had given proper notice to the Attorney General of its intent to stipulate that Ray was factually innocent. The District Attorney’s Office filed a declaration on January 25, 2017, explaining that it had properly notified the Attorney General, and on January 31, 2017, the court granted the unopposed motion for a finding of the factual innocence of Ray Jennings.
As you might imagine, being imprisoned for 11 years for a murder you did not commit, and then being released without any assistance, creates substantial financial hardship for Ray, who has five kids to support. He was released from prison with only $4 to his name. While compensation may be forthcoming, it may not be for another year, or even longer. Anyone who wants to help can make a donation of any amount to Ray’s “Go Fund Me” campaign, www.gofundme.com/RayJennings. Anything you can do to help is welcome.
In many ways, the story of Ray Jennings, and of Jeff and Clint championing his cause to achieve justice, epitomizes the good that we as lawyers do for society. Jeff and Clint achieved perhaps the most difficult feat as a lawyer: proving a convicted murderer innocent. Simply an inspiring human story.
Ricardo Echeverria is a trial attorney with Shernoff Bidart Echeverria LLP, where he handles both insurance bad-faith and catastrophic personal-injury cases. He is currently the incoming President of CAALA and was named the 2010 CAALA Trial Lawyer of the Year, the 2011 Jennifer Brooks Lawyer of the Year by the Western San Bernardino County Bar Association, and a 2012 Outstanding Trial Lawyer by the Consumer Attorneys of San Diego. He was also a finalist for the CAOC Consumer Attorney of the Year Award in both 2007 and 2009, and is also a member of ABOTA and the American College of Trial Lawyers.
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