Jury selection for 34-year-old Doisy murder case begins Tuesday

Monday, January 24, 2011 | 4:58 p.m. CST; updated 11:39 p.m. CST, Monday, January 24, 2011
Becky Doisy, left, a waitress and an art student, disappeared in 1976. More than 30 years later, Johnny Wright, right, was found living in Georgia under a different name. He is charged with the second-degree murder of Doisy, though her body was never found.

COLUMBIA — Becky Doisy disappeared on an August night in 1976. No one has seen her or heard from her since. Most people — including her family — believe she is dead. Many that knew her believe she was murdered. Her body was never found.

After nine years of dead-end leads, Johnny Wright was charged with second-degree murder in connection with Doisy's disappearance in 1985.

But by that time, Wright was gone, too.

In 2009, Wright applied for a job in Georgia, where he was living for several decades, and a warrant for his arrest showed up on a background check. He was arrested the next day. He reportedly lived under a fake name for all those years.

After 34 years, the mystery of what happened to Becky Doisy could be partly solved. Jury selection for Wright’s trial begins Tuesday.

The burden

The case against Wright is something of a rarity. Without a body, the prosecution is responsible for first proving that a crime was committed — that someone killed Doisy — and, next, that it was Wright who did it. In this case, Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Richard Hicks is also responsible for convincing the jury Doisy didn’t run away or die in some kind of accident.

In more typical murder cases, a body is the most important piece of direct, physical evidence. A “no body” case has to rely on circumstantial evidence, making a murder much more difficult to prove. The prosecution must persuade the jury that the only reasonable explanation for Doisy's disappearance is that she was murdered, and further, that Wright is the perpetrator of that crime. Since Wright's arrest in 2009, Hicks has been granted two continuances to gather more evidence. 

Possible evidence

The fact that the evidence and the witnesses’ memories of the case are more than three decades old is another challenge in the case. Much of the known evidence is the same as it was when Wright’s warrant for arrest was issued in 1985.

Among the key facts:

  • Judge Gary Oxenhandler ruled that Wright’s move to Georgia and the fact that he lived under an alias for 30 years can be used against him in court.
  • Oxenhandler also ruled that Wright’s life in Georgia as a husband and father, and the fact that he has no criminal record during his time there, cannot be used in his trial. But if Hicks relies too heavily on Wright’s departure from Missouri, Wright’s attorney, Cleveland Tyson, will be allowed to bring Wright’s life in Georgia into evidence.
  • A man called Harry Moore was living with Wright in 1976. About three weeks after Doisy disappeared, the two men were interviewed separately a few hours apart. That same day, Moore reported to police he was shot at in his home. He later claimed Wright was the shooter. Moore will likely testify; Oxenhandler ruled his account of the shooting is admissible.
  • Oxenhandler will not allow information that Wright’s then-girlfriend reported a break-in at her house on Aug. 6, 1976. She did not immediately report anything stolen but later claimed a set of tools belonging to Wright — among them, a shovel and hoe — were missing.
  • Wright will be considered a prior offender because of a burglary he committed in 1973. That means a jury will decide whether he is innocent, but Oxenhandler will decide his sentence.
  • Both sides agreed to select a jury from a larger-than-usual number of people. Eighty potential jurors — a group big enough to entirely fill one courtroom — will report for duty Tuesday. Both lawyers cited media attention to the case as justification for the larger group.

Possible witnesses

Harry Moore: Wright’s former roommate will likely be the key witness in the trial. Moore says Wright showed him Doisy’s body in the back of his car and admitted to killing her. He also claims Wright shot at him in 1976. It was Moore’s information provided to police in 1985 that led to a warrant for Wright’s arrest.

Chris Egbert: He is the Columbia police officer who spearheaded the search for Doisy and continued to follow leads for years after she disappeared. He retired in 1993. He could play a role in establishing that Doisy is dead.

An acquaintance of Wright’s from a methadone clinic in St. Louis: Hicks said in a pre-trial meeting that while Wright was at a methadone clinic in St. Louis, he told this acquaintance that he hid Doisy’s body.

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