Support from family is key for ‘lucky one’ proven innocent
Frank O'Connell, 55, of Glendora, Calif., considers himself one of the lucky ones because he always had someone to support him. Many other prisoners who have been exonerated do not have any support.
His son, Nick O'Connell, 33, of Fort Collins, Colo., never doubted his father, even when O'Connell's mother, father, sisters and friends turned on him, believing that he had killed another man.
When Nick was growing up in Colorado with his mother, he asked only a few questions about why his father was behind bars. Until he was 14 or 15, he said, he was too young to further question the situation. At that point his curiosity became too great.
After Nick read the 600-page transcript from his father's trial, he said he was shocked at the paucity of the evidence.
From that point, Nick dedicated his life to working to free his father. He avoided serious relationships with women because his father would be unable to attend his wedding. He dropped out of college after his seventh semester because his father would be unable to see him graduate.
"I like to make decisions based on facts," Nick said. He said he believes the justice system gets it right most of the time, but the system is far from perfect. "Why is a cop's word valued more than someone else's? Why give a cop the benefit of the doubt?"
After spending 27 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, O'Connell was released from California's Solano State Prison in March 2012. The only eyewitness to the crime had admitted he was manipulated by prosecutors.
More than a year and a half after he was released, O'Connell still finds himself thinking about the day that changed his life: Jan. 5, 1984.
On that day, Jay French, the ex-husband of a woman O'Connell had casually dated, was killed in South Pasadena, Calif. A vehicle pulled into the garage of an apartment complex where French was loading old mattresses into his truck. A man got out and shot French in the back.
O'Connell first heard about the murder a few days later, when police knocked on Nick's mother's door and told her O'Connell was wanted for murder. O'Connell and Nick's mother, Leslie Haynam, had stopped dating after she gave birth to Nick.
The police questioned O'Connell extensively about his relationship with French's ex-wife, Jeanne Lyon, which had ended months before the murder occurred. O'Connell, who was 25 at the time, said he had been 30 miles away at the time of the murder. At his trial, several friends verified where he had been
Not a shred of physical evidence connected O'Connell to the murder. The only evidence police had against him was the testimony of French's friend, Dan Druecker, identifying O'Connell as the shooter.
O'Connell's Los Angeles County public defender repeatedly recommended a bench trial to his client, meaning that a judge, rather than a jury, would decide O'Connell's guilt or innocence.
O'Connell, a former high school football star, was sentenced on April 16, 1985, to 25 years to life in prison.
Once incarcerated, O'Connell said he spent the first month or two feeling sorry for himself: His own parents believed he was a murderer. He couldn't trust the men in prison. He felt more alone than he ever had in his life.
Then he decided he needed to make the best of the situation in order to change it. He started talking to the other prisoners and felt a sense of camaraderie he hadn't expected.
"They were honest, good people who had just made a mistake," O'Connell said, adding he continues to talk to prisoners today, trying to offer them hope. "Institutions are filled with good people who made bad decisions. If you are honest with them, they will treat you well."
On the inside, O'Connell said time passed slower than imaginable. He would give himself milestones to look forward to – visits with Nick or a chance to go before the parole board. There was no point in keeping a calendar, however, because looking at the day's date was often depressing. He didn't get to see Nick as often as he liked, usually only twice a year, because Haynam had moved to Colorado and taken their son with her.
O'Connell used his free time to research eyewitness testimony at the prison's legal library. He questioned fellow inmates about the handling of guns to learn more about the mechanics of shooting.
When Nick would visit, the father and son would discuss what happened but would have a hard time coming up with answers.
"All those years, you don't know what happened; you are just guessing," Nick said. "We would sit in the visiting room just guessing."
O'Connell filed four appeals between 1986 and 1995, but all were denied. Some friends recommended he reach out to Centurion Ministries. But the likelihood of being selected was slim. Kate Germond, director of Centurion Ministries, said the organization receives about 1,800 requests a year but can accept only a fraction.
Centurion Ministries did accept O'Connell's case in 1999 after a lengthy vetting process and extensive interviews. Centurion does not take on a case unless its leaders are certain someone has been wrongfully convicted.
For the next decade, Germond and other investigators worked to track Druecker, the eyewitness who claimed to see O'Connell shoot French – and then persuade him to testify. It turned out that the regret of lying had been eating away at him. Years after his initial testimony, Druecker testified that he was really unable to identify O'Connell as the shooter but had felt pressure from interrogators to do so.
After Druecker's new testimony, a new judge reopened O'Connell's case. Centurion, given access to materials from the case, found handwritten notes from police admitting that Druecker, the star witness, had not been able to identify O'Connell as the shooter.
On March 29, 2012, word finally came from the judge's chambers. In her eight-page decision, she said the case against O'Connell was "based solely on eyewitness testimony" and "the new information presented casts legitimate doubt on the accuracy" of the witness.
On June 11, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office decided not to retry O'Connell, meaning his case was dismissed. Finally, he was free.
O'Connell struggled at first with reintegrating back into society. The hardest adjustment, he said, was making decisions on a daily basis. In prison, all decisions were made for him.
He didn't know how to use Google; he had never owned a cell phone; he struggled to use sinks with automatic sensors that turn on the water; and he hadn't chosen his own meals in almost 30 years.
But Nick was a patient teacher, at times playing the role of father to his own father.
O'Connell forgave his mother and sisters for not believing he was innocent while he was in prison. His father had died while O'Connell was in prison.
O'Connell had sworn to a 4-year-old Nick after being arrested that, when he was released from prison, he would move wherever Nick was so they could live together. That promise is what brought the two to Princeton.
On many occasions, O'Connell doubted he would ever be able to walk beyond the confines of his cell, but he always knew he would honor that promise made to his son if given the opportunity.
From the time O'Connell was convicted when Nick was 4, Nick had only seen his father in blue prison garb.
Thirty years later, Nick and his father sit across from each other at a Starbucks in Princeton, both free men.
Both father and son are 6-feet-4. Frank O'Connell has wrinkles and gray hair that were not there when he was arrested at 25. Nick is a handsome man, with a full head of black hair and a stocky frame. He is more stoic than his father, who smiles constantly.
During the interview, a woman at a nearby table needed a chair. Frank O'Connell gave up his without hesitation and stood while sipping his coffee. Later in the day when fellow exoneree David Bryant, who lives down the street from the father and son, called about needing to do laundry, O'Connell offered a key to his house and told Bryant to make himself at home.
The O'Connells moved from California to New Jersey because of Nick's discovered passion: He wanted to dedicate himself to helping to exonerate innocent men and women, and so he now works at Centurion Ministries, working with exonerees and helping Centurion raise money. His father helps to manage 14 Witchcraft gourmet sandwich shops in New York.
Although O'Connell said his boss told him he is welcome to discuss his past with whomever he wants, O'Connell said he tries not to think about the time he spent in prison.
But sometimes Nick can't help but reflect on the lost time.
"I personally feel that there is still residual trauma that I deal with," Nick said. "We're still facing challenges from something that happened 28 years ago."
California offers compensation to the wrongfully convicted, no more than $100 a day of wrongful incarceration or up to $36,500 a year. O'Connell chose to sue instead. His lawsuit against the state asks for $27 million, a million dollars for each year he spent in prison.
If he wins, the money will be contributed to wrongful conviction reform. O'Connell said there are innocent men and women in prison who deserve to be free. He wants to help them.
O'Connell experienced closure from his decades-long ordeal shortly after he was exonerated. Centurion Ministries keeps a list of active cases on a wall at the office. In front of a room full of his friends, family and Centurion Ministries staff in November 2012, O'Connell removed his name from the wall, signifying that this chapter of his life was closed.
"Nothing," O'Connell said, "felt better than getting to see my name off that wall."