FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION, AND IF
Appeal from the Circuit Court in and for Pinellas County,
Thane Bobbitt Covert, Judge - Case No. 522008CF026620XXXXNO
L. "Rex" Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Karen M.
Kinney, Assistant Public Defender, Tenth Judicial Circuit,
Bartow, Florida, for Appellant.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Events Prior to the Murders
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
The Murder Investigation
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 ...