“How many lies does it take to create a liar? How many lies can you make to keep your credibility intact?”
These were questions defense attorney Thomas J.C. Arrington asked Wednesday to a 12-person jury in the criminal trial of Donnie Wright.
Arrington represented Wright, 48, who was tried in the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas on three charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, each a high-tier felony of the third degree. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
After a four-hour deliberation Wednesday afternoon, the five-woman, seven-man jury could not reach a unanimous verdict and with three hung jurors, the proceeding ended as a mistrial.
The prosecution now has 14 days to decide whether or not to re-try the case.
The charges against Wright allege that he entered into a sexual relationship in December of 2016 with his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter. Wright had been living with the family.
Testimony presented during trial revealed Wright and the juvenile had allegedly been having sex for three months when the mother reported it to police in March.
The testimony also revealed a rape test had never been performed, so there was no DNA evidence to link Wright to the juvenile’s allegations, because in the beginning of the investigation the juvenile reportedly refused to cooperate with law enforcement.
The juvenile admitted in front of the jury that she had, in fact, lied to the law enforcement officers investigating the case, lied to the doctor who examined her in April, and lied about the nature of the relationship to her family and friends.
The sexual relationship allegedly began through a series of messages sent over Facebook messenger, according to the juvenile.
“I’m not the one who started it,” testified the juvenile, but she admitted to hiding the relationship and said she did not cooperate with law enforcement because she was scared.
Such refusal, argued Arrington, was proof that the juvenile’s accusations against Wright were lies.
Fayette County Prosecutor Jess Weade, representing the juvenile in the case on behalf of the state, argued that a 14-year-old child’s unwillingness to cooperate with law enforcement was not indicative that she was a liar.
“We have a 15-year-old girl who was 14-years-old at the time of the incident and who didn’t want to cooperate…at some point in time she didn’t want to get in trouble. At some point in time she liked what was going on. She told you today he [Wright] promised her things. Why would she kill the golden goose if he’s promised her things? That’s not lying — that’s just not cooperating, that’s being a teenager,” Weade said to the jury.
The juvenile testified that Wright had promised to marry her and move away together.
By the time law enforcement became involved with the case, the alleged text messages had been deleted. The trial rested on the direct statements made by the juvenile, law enforcement officers, and the juvenile’s friend who allegedly became the first person to learn about the nature of the relationship.
The juvenile’s friend testified that she witnessed Wright and the juvenile hold hands and kiss on several different occasions. The friend also said that the juvenile would allegedly send her pictures of Wright’s text message conversations, messages that centered around sex.
This activity was hidden from the mother, according to the friend and the juvenile’s testimony. The friend, saying that she was at first shocked and then wanted to maintain trust with the juvenile, waited a full month before telling the juvenile’s mother about the relationship.
Soon after the mother learned of the alleged relationship, the juvenile’s family and friends confronted Wright around the dining room table, at which point he refused to say anything, packed his belongings and left.
His abrupt departure was an admission of guilt, argued Weade.
In defense, Arrington said it was not an admission of guilt but that Wright left because he was accused of something so egregious that things would only continue to get worse if he stayed in the house.
The juvenile testified that she and Wright had sexual intercourse three to four times a day, every day, for three months.
Arrington professed to the jury that he found that admission hard to believe. He attempted to give the juvenile an opportunity to discuss it further or to say that maybe the sex didn’t occur every single day, but the juvenile insisted it was an accurate approximation.
The juvenile said that sometimes she and Wright would engage in sexual conduct when the mother and the friend left the house to go somewhere.
According to the juvenile, Wright and her mother did not act like they were in a relationship and the juvenile believed Wright and her mother were not having sex together during this time.
Frequently, said the juvenile, Wright would sneak into her bedroom at night, sometimes several times in one night, while the mother was asleep.
The juvenile said the relationship resulted in going to the Fayette County Memorial Hospital with her friend, the same friend who provided testimony, for a pregnancy test. The test confirmed the juvenile was pregnant.
Both the juvenile and her friend testified that while they were at the hospital, the juvenile texted Wright to let him know about the test, at which point he responded by saying that if she was pregnant it was his child.
In cross-examination, Arrington raised the question of whether the juvenile was in a relationship with someone else at the same time as the allegations occurred and the juvenile said that she had been.
Arrington then argued that there was no way to prove that Wright was the sender of the alleged messages because they had been deleted.
There were a few text messages that were presented as evidence, but they were presented as screen-shot images of messages, and the pictures did not show who sent the messages, whose phone was used, who received the message, what date they were sent, or what time they were sent.
Arrington pointed out another significant discrepancy in the case: the juvenile could not identify Wright, who was present in the courtroom and sitting beside Arrington.
“I think it should be pointed out that in (the juvenile’s) testimony today, she was unable to identify my client as the person she was having sex with three or four times a day every day,” said Arrington.
With a majority of the text messages being deleted, said Arrington, and without the juvenile able to identify Wright in the courtroom, the jury would have to decide if the evidence presented — direct statements — was enough to carry the burden of proving Wright’s guilt.
“Then you decide if this is a person you can trust,” said Arrington during closing arguments. “How many lies does it take to create a liar?”
What the jurors Wednesday were not aware of, however, was Wright’s prior criminal case. In 2012, Wright was tried on four charges of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. The first trial resulted in a mistrial with a hung jury. On re-trial, a Fayette County jury found him not guilty and the charges were dismissed.
Typically a defendant’s prior criminal history cannot be brought up during a trial unless the defendant chooses to testify. Wright did not testify during Wednesday’s trial.
In re-trying the 2017 case, the prosecution could try to get approval from the judge to bring up the past case and have the past victim testify. But, it’s not certain as to whether that will happen: a witness to the 2012 case said that the juvenile victim in the that case has since moved out of state.
With 79 days already served in the Fayette County Jail on the charges, Wright will continue to be held in the Fayette County Jail on a $50,000 cash-only bond as his case pends re-trial.
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