Seeds Planted by Brunvand in St. Pete Man’s Capital Murder Trial Blossom Into Conviction Reversal at Florida Supreme Court
A former United States Air Force sergeant’s death sentence for a pair of 2007 murders was overturned by the Florida Supreme Court last week thanks, in large part, to the work of Florida Board Certified Criminal Trial Attorney Bjorn Brunvand.
Ralph Daniel “Ron” Wright, Jr., was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in 2004 when he struck up a romantic relationship with Paula O’Connor of St. Petersburg. O’Connor and Wright had a child together the next year, but the child’s paternity was unclear at the time due to relationships she had with other men at the time. In addition to the relationship she had with Wright, O’Connor was engaged in relationships with two St. Petersburg police officers and her former mailman. She also had a rocky relationship with her daughter Victoria “Tori” Christopher, who was a teenager at the time of O’Connor’s death.
O’Connor’s body was discovered in her home on July 6, 2007 along with the body of her son Alijah, both victims of asphyxiation. Problems with the murder investigation began at its outset – one of the two St. Petersburg officers who responded to the initial call was in a relationship with O’Connor at the time of her demise, which was a fact the officer failed to inform the relevant authorities.
The prosecution’s case centered on a black Nomex summer flying glove that was found at the scene of the murder. Although the glove was of a type sold exclusively to the Air Force, extensive DNA testing of it was largely inconclusive. However, the state attempted to tie the glove to Wright using circumstantial evidence, claiming that it belong to him and was left behind by him in the course of allegedly fleeing the murder scene.
At trial Brunvand told jurors that, once the state issued a warrant for Wright in December 2007, it went to work tying the murder to him instead of investigating other leads. Brunvand pointed out the fact that O’Connor had several other boyfriends with possible motives, and that Christopher, who had a history of breaking into O’Connor’s residence and stealing from her and who received over half a million dollars in life insurance upon O’Connor’s death, was never seriously investigated by police.
Thanks to the arguments made and evidence presented by Brunvand at trial, appellate attorneys had a strong foundation to argue that there was sufficient doubt as to Wright’s involvement in the murder that a conviction could not be sustained. In fact, the Court noted in its opinion that the evidence tying Wright to the murder was even weaker than the evidence tying the defendant to the crime in the case cited by the appellate attorney as precedent for the proposition that suspicion of being the perpetrator of a crime isn’t enough for a court to hand down a conviction.
The Supreme Court sided with Brunvand, noting that the theory that the actual murderer might have been found out had the police investigated more thoroughly, was a “reasonable hypothesis.” No evidence was gathered by the police excluding Christopher from reasonable suspicion of being the murderer, and Christopher was never ruled out of the DNA picture as her DNA was never collected so that a comparison could be made.
The Supreme Court reversed the convictions against Wright, vacated his death sentence, and returned the case to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, instructing judges there to acquit him of the murders.
“I’m very happy for him and his family,” said Brunvand. “I’m hopeful that in the next month or so he’ll be released and can be a free man.”
Though the reversal of his conviction is an unquestionably significant event, Wright has not yet emerged from the woods. Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors may still request a re-hearing of the case by the Supreme Court. Failing that, other delays still stand between Wright and freedom. But, thanks to the issues preserved at trial by Brunvand and raised at the appellate level, Wright now finds himself much closer to freedom than he was before.
“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,” opined Brunvand. “They lose everything they have. … It remains a huge shadow over their lives.”
The Law Offices of Bjorn Brunvand have been representing people charged with capital murder, felony drug charges, drunk driving, government fraud, and white-collar crimes for over a quarter century. Contact our office today to discuss your Tampa Bay-area state or federal charges.