Opening statements set for Wednesday morning in Doisy murder case

Tuesday, January 25, 2011 | 8:29 p.m. CST; updated 12:00 a.m. CST, Wednesday, January 26, 2011

COLUMBIA — It took almost nine hours on Tuesday to narrow a room of 88 people down to the 12 who will be responsible for deciding if Johnny Wright killed Becky Doisy in 1976.

Wright was charged with second-degree murder in 1985 in connection with Doisy's disappearance. Doisy, a 23-year-old waitress in Columbia, was last seen on Aug. 5, 1976.

Police were unable to find Wright until 2009. When he applied for a job in Georgia — where he lived for several decades under a pseudonym — a criminal background check revealed the roughly 24-year-old warrant, and Wright was arrested the next day.

After Wright spent some time in the Boone County Jail, Wright's family paid $10,000 of his $100,000 bond so he could live in Georgia while waiting for his trial.

The main questions Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Richard Hicks asked the packed courtroom were about how each of them might react to circumstantial evidence, race and if they would have a problem keeping an open mind to the state's burden — to convince the jury “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Wright killed Doisy.

“The state doesn’t have to prove beyond all doubt,” Hicks said. “(The law) says ‘reasonable doubt.’”

Wright’s attorney, Cleveland Tyson, addressed most of the same topics when it was his turn to question potential jurors. Most of his time was spent double-checking that individuals understood Hicks’ questions and asking those same questions again.

Each attorney also carefully addressed race as an element in the case because Doisy was a white woman and Wright is a black man.

Hicks said racial tensions could have been much different in Columbia in 1976. He asked potential jurors to raise their hands if a “racial component” would impact the way they looked at the case. The question was considered heavily by Hicks, Tyson and Judge Gary Oxenhandler as they chose jurors Tuesday evening.

When it was the defense’s turn to question the pool again, race also was addressed: “This is not going to be a race issue. This case is about a tragedy,” Tyson said to the group. “A young white woman went missing. Just because Johnny is a black man should not mean he committed a crime.”

Hicks’ focus on how a person might weigh circumstantial evidence and hearsay took up about half of his almost three hours of questioning. The state will have to rely heavily on circumstantial evidence because Doisy's body was never found. Hicks said some witnesses will have to recall details from up to 34 years ago.

Through the process, Wright, now 65 years old, sat in a gray suit, never saying a word.

Wright was ruled a prior offender during a pre-trial hearing because of a burglary conviction in 1973, which means the jury is responsible for coming to a verdict, but Oxenhandler is to decide his sentence.   

Opening statements will begin at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Boone County Courthouse. Oxenhandler said the trial is expected to last until at least Friday morning.

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