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Wright v. State

Supreme Court of Florida

May 11, 2017



         An Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Pinellas County, Thane Bobbitt Covert, Judge - Case No. 522008CF026620XXXXNO

          Howard L. "Rex" Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Karen M. Kinney, Assistant Public Defender, Tenth Judicial Circuit, Bartow, Florida, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, Florida; Vivian Singleton, Assistant Attorney General, Daytona Beach, Florida; and Christina Z. Pacheco, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, Florida, for Appellee.

          PER CURIAM.

         Ralph Daniel Wright, Jr., appeals his convictions for two counts of first-degree murder and his two death sentences. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(1), Fla. Const. Because we conclude that the evidence presented at trial is insufficient to sustain the convictions, we reverse Wright's convictions and vacate his sentences.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Paula O'Conner met Ralph ("Ron") Wright, Jr., on a dating website in 2003. At the time, Paula lived in St. Petersburg with her teenage daughter, Tori. Wright was a sergeant on active duty in the United States Air Force and stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Wright was married but told Paula he was divorced. The two began dating and were shopping for engagement rings by the end of 2004. During their relationship, Wright often spent the night at Paula's house but, at times, he would disappear for long periods, telling Paula that he went on "secret missions" for the Air Force.

         In July 2005, Paula became pregnant with Wright's son. Over the course of the pregnancy, Wright began to see Paula less and less. While pregnant, Paula learned that her baby had brain and heart problems and a poor prognosis. The last known contact that Paula had with Wright was in February or March 2006, when she was seven or eight months pregnant. Paula gave birth to her son, Alijah, on April 9, 2006.

         Over the next year, Paula attempted to get Wright to acknowledge his paternity of Alijah and meet his financial obligations to Alijah. She hired an attorney to assist her with a paternity action. Paula and her attorney sent letters to Wright's supervisors in the Air Force, informing them that Wright had an extramarital child and that he refused to recognize his support obligations. Paula also sent a similar letter to Wright's then-wife, Jodi, and created a website, on which she criticized Wright for failing to support Alijah. Wright was finally served with the paternity action on June 12, 2007. Wright failed to file a timely response, which was due by July 2, 2007.

         On July 6, 2007, Paula and fifteen-month-old Alijah were found murdered in their St. Petersburg home. The cause of death for both victims was asphyxiation. Although law enforcement identified Wright as the primary suspect almost immediately after the murders, a warrant for his arrest was not obtained until December 2008.

         A. Events Prior to the Murders

         Paula had been involved with men besides Wright, including two St. Petersburg police officers, Officer Truong-who was married-and Officer Harris. Around the time of her death, Paula had a sexual relationship with another married man, Neil Hunt, her former mailman.

         On July 3, 2007, Paula spent the afternoon at home, swimming in her pool with Hunt. Tori was at the house with an ex-boyfriend, Matt Jaynes. Another of Tori's ex-boyfriends, Michael Cosmos, was also there working on Paula's plumbing. There was a guitar on Paula's couch, and Paula said she wanted to learn to play it. That night, Hunt sent Paula several text messages, saying, "I always leave your house wanting more, and I don't know if that's . . . a good thing or bad thing. I'm not Ron"; "I don't have the words. Maybe we shouldn't end up together because I would spend the rest of my life trying to make you happy"; and "I'm such a sucker for you. Miss you. XOXOXO."

         Tori had moved out of Paula's house in September 2006, when she was eighteen years old. Until that time, Tori was taking care of Alijah when Paula was at work, but after Tori moved out, Paula started taking Alijah to a babysitter during the day. At one point after moving out, Tori went into Paula's house and took some items. As a result, Paula took away Tori's key and changed the locks.

         Some witnesses described the relationship between Tori and Paula as volatile. In 2006, Tori dated Michael Brophy, who was in the military at the time. Brophy recalled an incident in 2006 where Paula and Tori were screaming at each other and he had to physically remove Tori by carrying her out of the house while she was kicking and screaming. Brophy and Tori broke up in December 2006, when Brophy found out that Tori was dating Cosmos and living with him at his parents' house. At first, Paula did not approve of Tori's relationship with Cosmos, but she eventually warmed up to Cosmos and sometimes had him do handyman work around her house.

         In April or May 2007, Tori moved out of Cosmos's parents' house, started dating Jesse Baynard, and moved into Baynard's bedroom at his family's house. Tori continued to live at Baynard's family's house until she and Baynard broke up after Paula's and Alijah's funeral on July 13, 2007. When living with Baynard, Tori was unemployed, did not have a checking account, and would ask Paula for gas money. Baynard was also not working at the time, so his mother was paying for everything for both him and Tori.

         On July 4, 2007, Paula, Alijah, Tori, and Baynard went to a barbeque together. Tori and Baynard left early. Tori dropped Baynard off at his house and left. Baynard-who Tori thought was divorced but who was actually still married-then had his wife pick him up and they followed Tori to Cosmos's house. A confrontation and car chase ensued, during which Baynard and his wife were screaming at Tori. After the chase, Tori returned with Cosmos to the barbeque to rejoin Paula and Alijah. Because Paula had been drinking, Tori drove Paula and Alijah home in Paula's car, and Cosmos followed. When they arrived at Paula's house, all four of them went inside, and Tori put Alijah to bed. She and Cosmos left after half an hour. Tori took Cosmos home and then spent the night at Baynard's house, despite the earlier confrontation and car chase.

         The next day, July 5, Tori was supposed to pick up Alijah from Paula's house and take him to a physical therapy session, but she called Paula that morning and said she was not coming. Neither Tori nor Baynard remembered what they did during the day on July 5, but they did remember going swimming that evening at a pool at a condominium complex where they did not know anyone. They said that they returned to Baynard's house after swimming and stayed in his room for the rest of the night. They did not see or speak to Baynard's parents that night, so no one could verify that they were home all night.

         Tori stated that she spoke to Paula on the phone at 8 p.m. on July 5. Michael Brophy-who had not spoken to Tori since their break up in December 2006-said that Tori called him that night. He hung up on her because they broke up on a bad note and he did not have anything to say to her. Tori texted him immediately after the hang up and was mad that he did not want to talk to her and had not forgiven her. Tori testified that she did not remember calling Brophy that night or why they broke up. Tori also testified that she woke up at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. on the morning of July 6, 2007, and saw Baynard sleeping next to her.

         Wright was on leave from work July 4-6, 2007. He told a coworker that he planned to go to the Fourth of July Daytona races. But when the coworker saw Wright on the base at 10 a.m. on July 6, Wright said his plans fell through. Wright also made July 4 plans with two women-one of whom had previously had a sexual relationship with Wright and the other of whom thought she was in a serious relationship with Wright at the time-but he did not show up for either of those plans.

         On the morning of July 6, 2007, Neil Hunt texted Paula at 6:28 a.m., but she did not respond, which was unusual. At 6:56 a.m., Hunt called both Paula's home and cell phones but got no answer. At that point, Hunt became concerned and went by Paula's house around 7 a.m. He saw that her SUV was not in the driveway and figured she had gone out of town for the weekend.

         B. The Murder Investigation

         When Paula did not show up as expected at the insurance company where she worked on the morning of July 6, 2007, her coworkers contacted her attorney, who was listed as her emergency contact. Paula's attorney sent his investigator, John Zurenda, to Paula's house. Zurenda called Tori and asked her to meet him there. Tori arrived with Baynard shortly thereafter. Once entry was made into the locked house by removing one of the doors, the bodies were discovered in Alijah's bedroom-Paula's body was on the floor and Alijah's body was in his crib. St. Petersburg Police Officers ...

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