2017-05-15 13:38:07 UTC
Supreme Court orders Ralph Wright Jr. to be acquitted of 2007 St. Pete killings
The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction and death sentences
Thursday of Ralph Wright Jr., exonerating the former Air Force sergeant of the
2007 killings in St. Petersburg of his ex-girlfriend and their baby boy.
There was not enough evidence to prove that Wright killed Paula O'Conner and
15-month-old Alijah, the court ruled.
"Although the facts established at trial support a strong suspicion of guilt,
they are not inconsistent with innocence," the justices wrote in a unanimous
opinion. "We therefore conclude that the evidence is insufficient to sustain
The case will be sent back to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court with instructions
that Wright be acquitted of the 2 murders.
Wright, 48, was convicted by a jury in 2013 and sent to death row a year later
by Circuit Judge Thane Covert.
Wright was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa when he met O'Conner on
a dating website. He was married, but told her he was divorced. He would
disappear for long periods, telling her he was on secret missions for the Air
Force, according to court records. The couple became engaged, but Wright became
distant after O'Conner became pregnant with Alijah.
He did not believe he was the boy's father and rebuffed O'Conner's efforts to
get him to support their child, records stated.
On July 6, 2007, O'Conner and her son were found dead in their home. She had
been strangled; her baby had been suffocated.
Much of the state's case centered on a single black glove that was found at the
crime scene. The glove was the same kind that had been issued to Wright's
military unit. But analysts who processed the gloves for DNA couldn't find any
that was a definitive match for Wright. It was also unclear whether the glove
came from MacDill.
No other physical evidence linked Wright to the crime scene.
O'Conner's sport utility vehicle was found the day of the murders at an
apartment complex about a 1/2-mile from her home. Investigators found no
fingerprints or other forensic evidence matching Wright in the SUV.
Detectives determined the killings happened between 5:30 and 6:15 a.m. At 7:53
a.m., Wright visited a Starbucks coffee shop near the air base in Tampa, a
19-minute drive over the Gandy Bridge from O'Conner's home. She lived in the
Edgemoor area of St. Petersburg. But there was no evidence that Wright had been
in Pinellas County that morning.
The state argued that Wright committed the killings to avoid paying child
support and to continue his "bachelor lifestyle."
But the defense argued that there were other viable suspects, including
O'Conner's teenage daughter, Victoria "Tori" Christopher, with whom she had a
In its opinion, the Supreme Court noted that the day of her mother's funeral,
Christopher applied to claim more than $500,000 in life insurance. After she
got the money, she spent it all in about 18 months, according to the court's
"The only evidence presented by the State to prove that Wright was the murderer
is the fact that he had motive and opportunity," the Supreme Court wrote. "But
while motive and opportunity might create a suspicion that Wright committed the
murders, even deep suspicions are not sufficient to sustain the convictions."
Christopher could not be reached Thursday for comment. Neither could a
spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.
"I'm very happy for him and his family," said Bjorn Brunvand, one of the
attorneys who defended Wright at trial. "I'm hopeful that in the next month or
so he'll be released and can be a free man."
The attorney explained that prosecutors can ask to have the Supreme Court hear
the case again. If they do not, there will still be a delay before the decision
"The bottom line is when someone is prosecuted for a crime like this, their
lives are just in ruins by the time it's over with," he said. "They lose
everything they have. ... It remains a huge shadow over their lives."
Wright's was one of several death penalty cases on which the Supreme Court
ruled Thursday, but the only one in which it tossed out a defendant's
Earlier, the court overturned the death sentence of Khalid Pasha for the 2002
murders of his wife and her 20-year-old daughter in Hillsborough County.
But that simply sets the stage for Pasha to be resentenced.
Pasha, 73, was convicted twice in separate trials for the killings of Robin
Canady, 43, and her daughter, Reneesha Singleton. The bodies of both women were
found the night of Aug. 23, 2002, in a remote cul-de-sac in the Woodland
Corporate Center on Waters Avenue. Their throats had been slashed.
The court ruled that Pasha's sentence was unconstitutional because a jury's
11-1 vote for the death penalty was not unanimous, as is now required.
(source: Tampa Bay Times)
Justice?----On Arkansas' Death Row, 2 Similar Cases - 2 Different Results;
Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson were both convicted before modern DNA methods.
Both maintained their innocence but were denied new DNA tests. Johnson is alive
today, but Lee is dead.
It made big national news on April 24 when Arkansas carried out the United
States' 1st double execution since 2000, of Jack Jones and Marcel Wiliams.
Far less well-known, though, is the story involving 2 other death-row inmates,
Ledell Lee and Stacey Johnson. The 2 men were arrested within the same year for
the murders of white women. Both maintained their innocence during decades of
imprisonment, and both were denied access to advanced DNA testing that their
lawyers assert would have proven their innocence.
Today, after more than a quarter of a century on death row, Johnson is alive,
and Lee is dead. Anti-death penalty lawyers and activists in the state say they
have a hard time seeing the distinction between the 2 cases.
In 1993, Lee was convicted for the murder of 26-year-old Debra Reese, who was
found sexually assaulted and bludgeoned in her home in Jacksonville, Arkansas.
According to the Innocence Project, Lee received inadequate counsel from both
his appointed attorney who suffered from alcohol abuse and the presiding judge
who was having an affair with the assistant prosecutor.
During his initial trial, the prosecution used two traces of blood found on his
tennis shoes as evidence of guilt. However, a serologist at the state crime lab
did no further testing for DNA or blood type. Microscopic comparisons of hair
found in Reese's home had similarities to Lee's, but weren't specifically tied
"There have been enormous advances in DNA testing since Ledell Lee's trial in
1995, but none of the lawyers appointed to represent Lee on any of his appeals
over the last 20 years did anything to investigate whether DNA technology could
prove his innocence," said Nina Morrison, a senior staff attorney with the
Innocence Project. "His appointed lawyers never filed petitions for DNA testing
with the courts, and as far as we could tell, they never even looked into the
Justice Neil Gorsuch cast the final vote in the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4
ruling, denying Lee's final motion. At 11:21 p.m. on April 20, the 51-year-old
Lee was ushered into the Cummins Unit death chamber, restrained to a gurney,
and administered a cocktail of 3 lethal injections. He was pronounced dead 4
minutes before his death warrant expired.
"We had a lot of concerns about whether the state's case against Lee was
reliable, both in terms of the limited scientific evidence that prosecutors
presented to the jury, and also in terms of what happened on the day of the
murder and how the investigation unfolded," said Morrison.
Like Lee, 47-year-old Johnson had a track record of requesting post-conviction
DNA tests for the brutal 1993 murder of 25-year-old Carol Heath, who was found
strangled and beaten in her DeQueen, Arkansas, home, with her 2 children
present. Johnson's 1st trial case was unanimously reversed after the court
realized Heath's 6-year-old daughter Ashley, the only witness, was incompetent
In the final report for Johnson's forensic DNA testing, defense experts
questioned why certain evidence was never examined. Johnson was both a friend
of Heath's and a frequent visitor to her home, which his attorney asserts could
explain follicles of his hair found at the scene. However, of the several
Caucasian hairs found in the victim's hands, none were tested. Lawyers believe
this could have been used to identify another suspect.
In 1997, the state reconvened and determined that then-9-year-old Ashley was
fit to testify for the prosecution. Shortly after, Arkansas' Supreme Court
convicted Johnson of capital murder in a 4-3 decision largely based on
biological evidence and her testimony.
"Stacey's conviction was always controversial," said Johnson's attorney,
Jeffrey Rosenzweig. "3 of the 7 members agreed with our position, and he came
within 1 vote of the supreme court of having a brand new trial. We had to try
In 2001, Arkansas passed a law allowing all criminal defendants access to
post-conviction DNA testing. It was only after both Lee's and Johnson's trials
that advanced Short Tandem Repeat DNA testing, regarded as more probative and
sophisticated, became a standard practice. Almost immediately after the statute
was passed, both men's lawyers requested appeals that were denied.
"Whoever killed Heath bit her on the breast," Rosenzweig told The Daily Beast.
"The cytologist collected what's called a secretor, which has enzymes. Only
about 20 % of the population has that enzyme, and during the DNA regime in
effect at that time, they received no DNA profile of anyone other than the
Johnson's DNA appeal was filed 2 days before the scheduled date of his
execution, set for the same date as Lee. Hours before he was set to be strapped
to the same gurney and administered the same protocol as Lee, the Arkansas
Supreme Court granted him clemency.
"I don't know why this happened," said Morrison. "Between the time that Johnson
was granted a stay and when Lee came up for a vote something changed. There
seemed to be no rational distinction between their legal claims."
In a response to the decision, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a statement
saying he was "both surprised and disappointed" considering "each case had been
reviewed multiple times by the Arkansas Supreme Court, which affirmed the guilt
Johnson and Lee were the only 2 of 8 inmates scheduled for back-to-back mass
executions, who had a significant guilt/innocence issue.
"We have an obligation as a civilized nation to be 100 % sure about guilt,"
said Karen Thompson, an attorney for the Innocence Project. "The 1 thing that
can get rid of the arbitrariness of the death penalty is DNA testing. The fact
that Mr. Lee wasn't even allowed the opportunity to get that testing
Johnson's case is being refiled and is expected to be heard in June. Within his
appeal, evidence that has never been tested for DNA, including Heath's rape kit
and clothing found miles away from the crime scene that belonged to the
perpetrator, will be sent for processing and reveal whether he will be
Since 1913, Arkansas has carried out 200 executions, 138 of whom have been
black men. "We have to ask ourselves why other men sentenced to death row in
Arkansas, some of whom have no innocence claims, have cases that allow them to
be seen within the fullness of their humanity. The possibilities that the law
allows people to have, when their entire story is being told is important.
Johnson is the only man of color granted a stay and I think that is a metric
that cannot necessarily be overlooked," said Thompson.
There is little distinction that can be drawn between these 2 cases, but
because of 1 Supreme Court vote, Lee will never have the chance of exoneration.
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