COLUMBIA — Because Becky Doisy's body was never found, the prosecution will need to rely on mostly circumstantial evidence to prove that Johnny Wright killed her and then hid the body and evidence, Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Richard Hicks said Wednesday in a pre-trial conference.
But in cases like it, such evidence has been given the same weight as direct evidence, Hicks said, in arguing for greater latitude in Wright's upcoming jury trial.
A jury is scheduled to be impaneled Tuesday, and Wright's trial is set to begin the next day. He is charged with second-degree murder and has pleaded not guilty.
In the last several weeks, the prosecution and the defense have sought to include or exclude evidence related to Wright's actions before and after Doisy's disappearance that demonstrates his guilt or innocence. So far, most of the rulings have been in favor of the state.
During the teleconference Wednesday with Judge Gary Oxenhandler and Wright's defense attorney, Cleveland Tyson, Hicks argued to be allowed to include one last, key piece of information in the case: In a report of a break-in filed by Wright's ex-girlfriend on the day after Doisy was last seen, the only items taken were a hoe, a shovel and a few other tools.
In a recent interview with the woman, who now lives in Texas, Hicks said she told him the tools originally belonged to Wright but that she'd borrowed them two weeks to a month before the break-in. He stressed that she was recalling these facts from more than 30 years ago and that was why she couldn't be more certain of the exact date.
The state, Hicks said, would like an opportunity to persuade the jury that Wright stole the tools, presumably to bury Doisy after he killed her. Although circumstantial, Hicks said evidence that Wright did something to conceal the tools would show Doisy's death was a result of "criminal agency."
Tyson disagreed. “There is absolutely not even one iota of evidence that Johnny Wright took those tools,” he said.
The two attorneys argued about the stolen tools for about 45 minutes.
Oxenhandler asked Hicks for a complete list of the tools stolen and said he would decide later whether to allow the evidence. As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oxenhandler's decision was not yet available on Missouri Case.net.
Doisy was 23 years old, a waitress at the restaurant on Walnut Street now known as Ernie's and an art student in Columbia when she disappeared.
A key witness for the prosecution, Wright’s former roommate, Harry Moore, will testify he saw Doisy with Wright at the apartment the two men shared the night of Aug. 5, 1976. It was the last time anyone saw Doisy, according to previous Missourian reporting.
When police questioned Moore about three weeks after Doisy was reported missing, Moore told police about having seen her the night of Aug. 5. Wright was also questioned. A few hours after those police interviews, Moore reported being shot at in his home. Moore later said it was Wright, but no one was ever arrested in the shooting.
Nine years later, Moore was charged in connection with Doisy’s disappearance. The charges were dropped when he told police he saw Doisy’s body in Wright’s car the night she disappeared.
A warrant for Wright’s arrest was issued.
Wright apparently lived under the name Errol Edwards until he applied for a job in Georgia under his real name in 2009. A criminal background check revealed an old Missouri warrant for his arrest. He lived in Georgia for almost three decades before his arrest and is married with grown children.
Wright's sudden departure from Missouri is among the motions Oxenhandler has ruled on regarding the case. Tyson asked that Wright’s move to Georgia not be portrayed as a “flight” from authority.
But Oxenhandler denied the motion, allowing the prosecution to use it as evidence of “consciousness of guilt.”
Among the other motions:
Motion: Hicks asked that the defense not be allowed to portray Wright as a good father and husband and a good citizen while in Georgia.
Ruling: Wright’s family life is not allowed in the case. However, if Hicks’ case relies too heavily on Wright's move from Missouri, Tyson will be allowed to use Wright’s family life in a positive light.
Motion: Hicks asked to use a 1973 burglary charge against Wright as evidence of prior offense.
Ruling: Allowed. Ruled that Wright will be considered a prior offender. If the jury finds Wright guilty, his prior offense would mean Oxenhandler would handle his sentencing.
Motion: Hicks asked to use the alleged shooting at Moore in 1976.
Ruling: Allowed. Hicks will have to show that not only did Moore’s interview with the police name Wright as the last person seen with Doisy, but also that it led to Wright shooting at him later that day.