Frank O’Connell, 54, remembers the day in 1985 when he left his parents’ Glendora home for his appearance in court. He had been charged with the 1984 murder of 27-year-old Jay French in South Pasadena. But O’Connell knew he had solid alibis and no physical evidence linked him to the crime.
He knew he was innocent.
“I had a future ahead of me,” said O’Connell. “I was going to put this all behind me.”
O’Connell was 27 years old, a former Glendora High School football star, a father of a four-year-old boy. He walked through his parents’ doorway certain he would return back to his family later that day.
But it would take 27 years before he would walk through the door again.
O’Connell describes the nearly three decades he spent in prison as if he were suspended in time. While life continued at a frenetic pace outside, he spent the excruciatingly slow moments in prison desperately finding a way to overturn his murder conviction and win back his freedom.
Finally, on April 24, O’Connell was released from Solano State Prison on a $75,000 bail after a judge found serious discrepancies in the 1985 trial that convicted him of French’s murder.
O’Connell said he prefers not to dwell on the lingering question of, ‘Why?’
But O’Connell knows he may never know the answer, only that he system that was supposed to protect him failed him miserably, he said.
But as O’Connell prepares to head to back to a Pasadena court for a pre-trial hearing, O’Connell hopes this time, there will be a different outcome.
By O’Connell’s account, his ordeal began in 1983, with a platonic friendship he developed with Jeanne Lyon, the ex-wife of Jay French. At the time, O’Connell was living in Santa Barbara and was in between jobs. He said he was trying to move back down to the Los Angeles area to be closer to his ex-wife Leslie and his son, Nick.
“The officers tried to say I had this love relationship with this woman and it was nothing like that,” said O’Connell. “She offered me a place to stay and I lived there. We didn’t have this boyfriend –girlfriend thing, it was just a convenience.”
O’Connell said he only lived with Lyon for six weeks before moving out. Six months later French was murdered.
French, a maintenance worker, was fatally shot in South Pasadena. In his dying words, he identified someone he had seen in a yellow Ford Pinto in the company of his ex-wife Jeanne.
But O’Connell knows he was nowhere near the crime at the time it occurred. He said he was 30 miles away in La Verne, watching a basketball game on ESPN with his roommate Scott. His other roommate was installing a stereo in his girlfriend’s car. At around 1:25 p.m. his roommate’s girlfriend arrived asking if they all wanted to go to lunch. It was that moment French was murdered.
But investigators began looking at O’Connell because of his brief stay with Lyon. It would be revealed later that Lyon was embroiled in a custody battle with French over their son. Investigators believed O’Connell was romantically involved with Lyon and shot French to help her win custody of her son.
Prosecutors built their case around an eyewitness who picked O’Connell out in a police lineup as the shooter. The eyewitness would later recant his testimony, revealing that he had been coerced by investigators into identifying O’Connell.
But O’Connell waived a jury trial believing there was no way a judge could find him guilty.
“I knew I was going home, there’s no way. I have three alibis,” said O’Connell. “There is no way I can get convicted.”
But a judge did convict O’Connell of murder, relying heavily on the eyewitness testimony.
When the judge rendered her guilty verdict, O’Connell felt the blood rush from his head. Everything moved in slow motion.
“It was like an outer body experience,” O’Connell described it. “This wasn’t happening. It was like a dream.”
Life in prison was difficult, but O’Connell said he could deal with the prison gangs and the intimidation from the other inmates. But O’Connell said nothing compared to the feeling of isolation and helplessness of being wrongly imprisoned.
“I wanted to prove my innocence,” O’Connell said. “ As each day passed, I would grow more restless, trying to learn more about my case, trying to find a way out.”
But as days turned into years, O’Connell said he began to grow more restless.
“Once they slam the door shut, it takes an act of Congress to pry the door open,” said O’Connell.
In 1988, O’Connell contacted Centurion Ministries, an organization dedicated to overturning wrongful convictions. But it wasn’t until a decade later when the group decided to formally take on O’Connell’s case.
The group helped bring to light the discrepancies in O’Connell’s trial, including the eyewitness testimony that was later recanted. Other evidence, such as potentially exculpatory written notes by investigators, were not turned over to O’Connell’s defense.
Without Centurion’s help, O’Connell said he would still be sitting in his jail cell.
“I knew then there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” said O’Connell. “Someone was going to help me out.”
O’Connell said he can’t stay mad at the detectives, prosecutors or judge for putting him behind bars for 27 years. All he cares about now is proving his innocence and getting back to the life he missed out on.
Since his incarceration, O’Connell’s father passed away from cancer. O’Connell visited his father’s grave for the first time last month.
His son, then only 4 years old when his father was convicted, is now 31 years old.
“I was fortunate that my son was raised by a wonderful stepfather,” said O’Connell. “But I never got to be his father. That was taken away from me.”
But there is so much life to catch up on, said O’Connell.
“We love having him back,” O’Connell’s sister Annajean Arbogast told Patch. “”But you have to realize that life has changed. Families have changed. The simple things we take for granted are all so new now.”
O’Connell is savoring the simple things such as real silverware and glass cups, even a delicious home-cooked meal.
O’Connell said he stood at the corner of Route 66 amazed at how fast the cars were coming as if they were going lightening speed – only to find out they were traveling the speed limit.
“It’s kind of funny actually,” said O’Connell as he struggles to navigate the apps on his cell phone. “I feel like I’ve stepped through time. I’m a kid trying to experience it all.”
Proving His Innocence
O’Connell hopes his case will be dismissed Friday – he and his lawyers believe there is very little evidence left against him – but if it were go back to a retrial, O’Connell is certain he will be exonerated.
But not everyone is certain of his innocence. Jay French’s family have gone on record to say they believe O’Connell is guilty.
Although O’Connell said he’s hurt by their stance, he said he’s not bitter.
“They lost a son, a father. How can you find closure after that?” said O’Connell. “Nothing will ever bring back Jay.”
While he tries his best to be optimistic about a retrial, O’Connell suspects the process could be dragged out for at least another month.
But that doesn’t faze O’Connell.
He can be patient.
He has been for 27 years.