After nearly three decades of legal battles, Frank O’Connell finally got the news he says will help him move on with his life.
He had spent 27 years behind bars for a murder he insists he did not commit. He had missed precious moments he could never relive, particularly the growth of his 4-year-old son into adulthood.
But on Tuesday, the final chapter in O’Connell’s legal odyssey closed as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $15-million settlement in his civil rights lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department.
Surrounded by family and his legal team, O’Connell stood outside the same Pasadena courthouse where a judge convicted him 32 years ago of fatally shooting a man at a South Pasadena apartment complex.
“This is a bittersweet moment for me,” O’Connell said standing next to his son, Nick. “I can now try to put the past behind me, but I can never forget what happened to me during those years I was in prison.”
His 80-year-old mother, RoseMarie O’Connell, broke down in tears.
“This is the happiest moment of my life. Every time I used to pass by this courthouse, it brought back bad memories,” she said.
The settlement is one of the largest in L.A. County in recent years, according to O’Connell’s attorney.
A judge freed O’Connell in 2012 after finding that sheriff’s detectives failed to disclose exculpatory evidence during his original trial.
Since 1989, at least 180 people have had wrongful convictions thrown out in California, including 63 in Los Angeles County, according to data from the University of Michigan’s National Registry of Exonerations. A majority of the Los Angeles cases involved witness misidentification.
O’Connell’s conviction rested heavily on the testimony of a stranger who witnessed the killing and identified him in court as the gunman.
This year alone, Los Angeles County courts have declared wrongful convictions in four cases, according to the registry. Among the defendants were Raymond Lee Jennings, Marco Contreras and Michelle Poulos — all three of whom were declared factually innocent in court.
On Jan. 5 1984, O’Connell was arrested in the shooting death of Jay French, a maintenance worker who had been in a heated custody battle with his ex-wife over their son.