Wright found guilty of second-degree murder of Becky Doisy

Friday, January 28, 2011 | 10:37 p.m. CST; updated 10:45 p.m. CST, Friday, January 28, 2011
A court marshal handcuffs Johnny Wright after he was found guilty of second-degree murder in the August 1976 disappearance of Becky Doisy on Friday at the Boone County Courthouse. Wright was taken into custody on a $1 million, cash-only bond after the verdict was read. Sentencing is scheduled for March 14, 2011.

COLUMBIA — After 34 years of false hopes and anxiety, family and friend's of Becky Doisy finally experienced an emotion they weren't sure would ever come — closure.

Johnny Wright was found guilty Friday evening in the 1976 disappearance and presumed murder of Doisy.


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When the verdict was read, Doisy’s younger sister, Kathy Doisy, broke into tears. Her husband hugged her hard as she sobbed into his shoulder.

Wright showed no emotion immediately after the verdict was read.

The jury deliberated for six hours.

Doisy disappeared on Aug. 5, 1976. Witnesses testified to seeing Wright with Doisy on that day. Her body was never found.

Because Wright was ruled a prior offender at a pre-trial hearing for a 1973 burglary charge, Judge Gary Oxenhandler will decide the sentence. That must take place sometime in the next six weeks. Wright faces 10 to 30 years in prison.

“I have to thank Harry Moore and William Simmons because if they wouldn’t have done that (testified), it couldn’t have happened,” Kathy Doisy said outside the courtroom.

Moore and Simmons both testified for the prosecution. They said Wright admitted to them that he killed Doisy and got rid of her body. Their statements to police in 1985 ultimately gave authorities enough evidence to issue the warrant for Wright’s arrest. 

Wright, 66, was nowhere to be found when the warrant was finally issued, and he evaded authorities for 24 years. Records indicated he lived under the alias “Errol Edwards” from 1981 to 2007. For most of that time, he lived in Lawrenceville, Ga., where he was arrested in September 2009 after applying for a job using his real name. A background check for the job turned up the warrant.

His arresting officer in Georgia testified that Wright said, “OK,” and sat down when told of the outstanding warrant from Boone County.

Several friends of Doisy stayed for the verdict, including Mort Meman, who was her boyfriend from 1972 to 1974.

“I saved all the love letters she ever gave me,” Meman said after the verdict. He said Doisy was his first love and, even after she disappeared, had a huge impact on his life.

After the verdict was read and the jury had left the courtroom, Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Richard Hicks asked that Wright be taken into custody and that his bond be raised from $100,000, which was set in 1985, to $1 million, cash only. Hicks said Wright was a “flight risk.” Wright is due in court in St. Louis next week for a probation violation from 1978.

Defense Attorney Cleveland Tyson argued that Wright could be trusted because he came to all his scheduled hearings and was completely cooperative after his arrest.

However, Oxenhandler agreed with the state, and Wright — wearing a charcoal colored suit, a cream colored shirt and dark orange tie — was handcuffed.

An unidentified woman accompanied Wright each day of the trial. She waited for him outside the courtroom during each recess and carried his coat for him while he sat between his attorneys. As she watched the trial, she was expressionless.

Wright was similarly inexpressive until he was being escorted out of the courtroom by marshals. Looking back over his shoulder, he mouthed something to the woman and her face twitched a little, but she said nothing.

As Kathy Doisy and her sister’s supporters hugged and shook hands, the woman could be heard crying down the hallway. She left the courthouse carrying Wright’s coat in her arms.

Tyson said the woman asked that her identity and relation to Wright not be revealed. Tyson and his colleague had no comment on the verdict.

Columbia Police Detective Chris Egbert, who led the search for Doisy and kept an eye on the case until he retired in 1993, was called to the stand four times during the four-day trial. He said he felt some closure after the verdict.

“It was the only case I had that wasn’t brought to some kind of justice,” Egbert said. “My only regret is that we never found a body.”

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Laura Leavell January 29, 2011 | 3:10 a.m.

I was a student in the 70s and a customer of Ernie's and of Becky's. I have always wondered what happened to her, and am glad to see her killer come to justice. But I really don't feel that anything can really be just. He has lived his whole life out and Becky did not get to do that. No sentence can really do real justice, but I'm glad they finally got him.

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver January 29, 2011 | 3:46 p.m.

The rules of evidence must have changed drastically. You used to have to have a body to prove that a person had been murdered, and then later they moved on to having DNA evidence and making convictions based on that. Now though, it appears that no body, no DNA and just the word of a couple of other people, who could have some unknown motive for their testimony, is all it takes.
I understand that the family needs closure, but this new way of convicting people is a bit frightening.

(Report Comment)
Anne Christnovich January 29, 2011 | 7:41 p.m.

Hi Chip, I'm the reporter who wrote this story. You bring up a good point that it is unusual to convict without a body. A legal term called "corpus delicti" means the prosecution has to first prove someone has died and next, that the death was a result of a crime. The prosecution had to prove this "beyond a reasonable doubt" in order for the jury to find a guilty verdict. On top of that, the crime was committed in 1976 so the trial had to conducted using the laws that applied at that time -- I don't know why this is a rule and the judge said in pre-trial that the laws aren't too different.

(Report Comment)
James Fairchild January 29, 2011 | 10:11 p.m.

Chip and Anne,

You both seem to be a little confused here. The evidence must be "beyond reasonable doubt". There is no requirement that a body be found. All of the evidence, including the time-line, Johnny Wrights behavior during the time-line, and the testimonies of the witnesses indicates that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. What is in this for the key witnesses? Nothing, other than the relief of coming clean. Wright lived with this guilt for 34 years, but he showed no reaction to his arrest, trial proceedings, or verdict in the trial. Why not? Because he is guilty, and will live the rest of his life with 3 meals per day, good medical care, and no worries of what tomorrow may bring. If he wants the sentence reduced, then he will admit guilt and help locate the body for true closure for the family. This effort could determine the difference between 10 and 30 years in prison. The travesty here is the fact that Moore's parole officer did not pursue additional evidence of who shot at him and why? This could have been solved 30 years ago. Kudos to Officer Egbert for caring enough to stay with this. This is the epitome of public service in the Justice System.

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver January 30, 2011 | 2:31 a.m.

One of the first cases that I remember, of a murder trial without a body, using DNA, resulting in a conviction was a murder right here in Columbia. Perhaps it was the fact that this was a death penalty case that made it so unusual, but I also thought it was due to the fact that there was no body found.
He had been charged here in Boone county with assault on his wife Susan, late in 1986 who conveniently vanished before she could testify. Even with all of this circumstantial evidence, they did not charge Ralph with the crime until he quit paying the storage where the car, with the DNA in it was hidden, and authorities were summoned. So some 20 months after she vanished Ralph was charged, tried and convicted. Ralph Davis was executed on April 28, 1999.

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Chip Leaver January 30, 2011 | 2:35 a.m.

And yes, the lack of a body did prove to be somewhat of a challenge. I may have used the wrong wording when I said that you had to have a body. Apparently you don't, but obviously, a couple of decades ago they were reluctant to charge anyone with murder without one, and that has definitely changed.

(Report Comment)
Chip Leaver January 30, 2011 | 2:45 a.m.

It also appears that the star witness was charged with this murder, before he came forward and agreed to testify.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 5, 2011 | 4:25 p.m.

Not really that unusual to prosecute on a murder without a body these days.

It is a little tougher to do, but it is done more often than you might think.

There is a Prosecutor in Oklahoma named Chris Ross that is thought of as one of the foremost experts in these types of prosecutions. He has been prosecuting these kinds of cases for a long time. And he is one brilliant, honest, and ethical Prosecutor. A genuinely nice guy.

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
CHRIS ROSS February 7, 2011 | 10:59 a.m.

The history of "no body" cases is long. The law developed back in England in the 1700's, due to the fact that members of the Navy could essentially throw someone overboard, and never have criminal liability: no body, no crime. In a case called Captain Green's Trial (1705), the courts ruled that no body was required.

It is also not new in the United States. the US Federal Courts ruled in 1834 that a body was not required. There have been over 200 no body trials. There has been at least one in all but two states.

The rule of corpus delicti is often misunderstood. It means "body of crime", not a body of a person. It is usually tied to a confession case. You cannot admit the confession until you have proven the corpus delicti. To establish corpus delicti, the prosecution must only prove that a crime has been committed. Identifying the defendant as the person who committed that crime is not required in establishing the corpus delicti. In essence then, corpus delicti means that you can show a crime was committed by someone. Some states have done away with the corpus delicti rule altogether.

Proving death without a body is not as difficult as it sounds. There are many aspects of a person's life that you go into, and show that all these have completely stopped. Thus, even without blood, DNA, or even a crime scene, death can be established convincingly. Whether or not you can link someone to that death depends on the circumstances of each case.

(Report Comment)

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