LA County to pay $15 million to man wrongfully imprisoned for 27 years

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Frank O'Connell says the L.A. County Sheriff's Department hid evidence, coached witnesses and ignored leads pointing toward the victim's ex-wife hiring a hitman. (KABC)

Frank O'Connell is remarkably peaceful about the 27 years he spent behind prison walls for a murder he did not commit.

"I would ask them why," Frank tells Eyewitness News. "At least give me an explanation and I would take that explanation, and I would forgive them for what they did."

Frank's son Nicholas is not so forgiving.

"When you wake up every day and know that your dad is in a cage fighting for his life, sometimes literally that day, there is no way of grieving and recovering," says Nicholas O'Connell.

Frank O'Connell missed the majority of his son's life. Nicholas was just 5 years old when Frank was locked up for good. Letters, photographs and limited phone calls could not fill the void.

"I wanted to be a good father, a conventional father," Frank says. "Not a father writing letters and making phone calls through a system monitoring everything you say. "Not being able to fix his 'owies,' I couldn't do it."

Frank was wrongfully convicted for the 1984 murder of Jay French in the carport of a South Pasadena apartment building. His 2012 release came after years of dogged investigation by the non-profit Centurion Ministries. They uncovered potentially exculpatory evidence that was never turned over to the defense at trial -- including an anonymous tip about the victim's ex-wife hiring a hitman to kill him over a child custody battle.

"The contract killer part of this seems to be corroborated by her confessions to almost everybody she talked to," says attorney Lindsay Battles. "She said she hired a hitman who killed her ex-husband."

French's ex-wife has denied any wrongdoing.

The only eyewitness to the murder recanted his story years later and says detectives pressured him to pick Frank out of a six-pack array of mug shots. That eyewitness was legally blind, forty feet away and not wearing his glasses.

"There was a deliberate effort to misrepresent the interviews of witnesses in this case," says attorney Ron Kaye. "This was no mistake ... this was an effort to essentially defraud the court."

Frank says he always believed his conviction would be overturned, and never wavered -- even when he went before the parole board -- which would not consider granting him parole unless he admitted to the murder.

"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," Frank says he told the parole board.

Frank and his family filed a civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department after a federal judge overturned his conviction in 2012. The LASD then asked the L.A. County District Attorney's Office to refile charges against Frank, but prosecutors declined.

The county spent nearly $1.4 million on legal fees defending the civil lawsuit, before agreeing to a $15 million settlement this year. It is the largest settlement between the county and a single individual in at least the last decade.

"Cases settle for many reasons," the sheriff's department said in a statement. "This case remains an open murder investigation. As a result of this case, the Department has developed a checklist which will ensure that there is documentation reflecting that all material evidence has been turned over to prosecutors. In addition, the current practice is to digitally record all suspect identifications by witnesses, which allows for greater confidence in the integrity of the identification itself."

Nicholas O'Connell says if the sheriff's department "had put as much resource, time and energy into actually investigating this murder as they did fighting my father's and my civil suit, there's a really good chance," the real killer would be behind bars.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 Investigative Producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com.

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lawsuitsettlementlos angeles county sheriff's departmentwrongful convictionwrongfully accusedLos Angeles County
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