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Wrongfully-convicted California Prisoner Exonerated, Receives $15 Million

by Derek Gilna

How do you calculate the cost of years of your life – lost forever – when you are behind bars for a crime you didn’t commit, while knowing that those who put you there perverted the criminal justice system to do so? For Frank O’Connell of Los Angeles, California, it can be measured in a payout of $15 million.

O’Connell, who was unjustly imprisoned for over 27 years, said he never stopped trying to prove his innocence.

“This brings a sense of closure. It’s been a long road,” he said. “It’ll be a new beginning for me, and I can really start my life over. I can’t make up for the time that was stolen from me, but I can take positive action with what’s left.”

O’Connell was arrested in 1984 for the fatal shooting of Jay French, whose ex-wife was his girlfriend; he was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison based on the testimony of a neighbor who said the dying French told him he had been shot by a man driving a car matching the description of O’Connell’s. While he was in prison, his case was taken up by Centurion Ministries, whose investigators determined that prosecutors failed to produce exculpatory evidence.

The eyewitness who implicated O’Connell was found to be only partially-sighted; he recanted his testimony and indicated he had been pressured by government officials to identify O’Connell. In March 2012, a judge granted habeas corpus relief and ordered him released due to improper influence of witnesses and withholding of evidence from defense counsel.

Although O’Connell had been considered for parole prior to the court order, he refused to admit guilt.

“I said I would never come in and lie to you and admit to a crime I didn’t commit. I will spend the rest of my life in here and die before I do that,” he stated.

O’Connell filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in 2013; he alleged damages not only for his wrongful conviction, but for “serious personal physical injury and physical sickness as a direct result of his incarceration,” including failure to treat his hepatitis C for 14 years, chronic lower back pain, and the removal of three teeth due to a “poor diet, and poor and inadequate dental treatment in prison.”

Four years after filing suit, in April 2017, O’Connell settled the case for $15 million inclusive of attorneys’ fees and costs, but never received the satisfaction of an apology for the county’s wrongdoing.

“I’m a little disappointed I never got an apology, and I realize it may never happen, but I don’t carry it with me,” he said.

The settlement was finalized and the case dismissed in November 2017. See: O’Connell v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:13-cv-01905-MWF-PJW. 

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Related legal case

O’Connell v. County of Los Angeles