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UPDATED: Appeals court reverses conviction of former Tacoma school principal

Post by Stacey Mulick / The News Tribune on Sep. 1, 2009 at 11:11 am |
September 1, 2009 2:04 pm
Harold Wright Jr.
Harold Wright Jr.

A state Appeals Court has overturned the conviction of a former Tacoma middle school principal who was found guilty of third-degree rape in 2007.

The Court of Appeals found the trial court erred in giving jurors the instruction on third-degree rape during the trial of Harold Wright Jr., now 38. The conviction of his co-defendant, Richy Carter, also was reversed.

“Accordingly, we reverse and remand for a new trial,” the opinion, published this morning, states. The opinion was written by Judge David H. Armstrong. Judge Marywave Van Deren concurred. Judge J. Robin Hunt filed a dissent.

Wright’s attorney, Barbara Corey, said they were happy with the court’s decision.

“This is great news,” she said this morning.

Deputy prosecutor Kit Proctor said her office will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. Prosecutors have 30 days to file a petition for appeal.

A jury convicted Wright and Richy Carter of third-degree rape in July 2007. Wright was the principal of Baker Middle School when he was placed on administrative leave in February 2007, after prosecutors filed criminal charges against him.

Both men were initially charged with second-degree rape.

Prosecutors alleged he and Carter sexually assaulted a woman at the town house of a friend after meeting her and two other friends in a Puyallup bar in 2004. The woman, then 19, knew Wright from Spanaway Lake High School, where he was an assistant principal when she was a student.

During the trial, the woman testified she was held down and raped by at least one man – possibly two – in the town house. She could not remember specific details but was adamant that she did not have consensual sex. She also said Wright was in the room at the time.

Investigators found Carter’s DNA in the woman during a sexual assault exam the day after the attack. Forensic technicians also found DNA consistent with Wright’s on the woman’s body.

During the trial, Wright testified that he had no sexual contact with the woman. He said she had danced close to him as she wore only jeans and a bra. Carter claimed he had consensual sex with the woman.

Wright resigned after his conviction. He was sentenced to serve six months in jail but the sentence was stayed while Wright appealed.

In the appeal, Wright argued the trial court erred in giving the jurors the option of considering third-degree rape. He also argued the evidence didn’t support the conviction. (Wright also raised issues of prosecutorial misconduct but the Appeals Court did not address those issues.)

The appeals court found the victim’s testimony only supported a conviction of second-degree rape and Wright’s evidence only supports that no rape occurred.

(To prove second-degree rape, prosecutors must convince jurors the sex was by forcible compulsion. Third-degree rape requires the state to prove the defendant had sexual intercourse with a person who was not the spouse, who did not consent to the act and who clearly expressed lack of consent by words or conduct.)

The judges found “the trial court erred by giving the third degree instruction because neither (the victim’s) testimony nor the defendant’s evidence supports an unforced, nonconsensual rape,” the opinion states.

In the dissent opinion, Judge Hunt wrote the evidence supported giving the third-degree rape instruction.

“In spite of the majority’s characterization to the contrary, I agree with the State that ‘the jury could find lack of consent without force’ based on the record before us,” the dissent opinion states.

In the Court of Appeals decision, the judges remanded the case back to Pierce County Superior Court for retrial on the second-degree rape charges.

A year after the conviction, the NAACP asked the U.S. Department of Justice to review the case, alleging racial bias. Wright is black; the woman is white.

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