COLUMBIA — The 12 jurors chosen to decide the verdict for Johnny Wright were advised by Judge Gary Oxenhandler not to take notes during the trial, watch the news, read the paper, go on the Internet or speak about the case at all, to anyone.
Wright was on trial last week for second-degree murder in connection with the Aug. 5, 1976, disappearance of Becky Doisy. Wright’s whereabouts were unknown for 24 years because he was living under the name “Errol Edwards” in Texas and then Georgia.
After three and a half days and testimony by more than a dozen witnesses in Wright’s trial, the jury was ushered into the deliberation room. Before the jurors could finally discuss what they had seen and heard during the trial, a foreperson, who was in charge of delivering the verdict to the judge, had to be chosen.
Melissa Spain volunteered.
“For me, personally, I needed to know we took this thing seriously and fine-tooth combed out all the bits and pieces of both sides,” Spain said. “It was a room full of logical, open-minded people just really taking it seriously and looking at every possible angle.”
It took six hours to reach a verdict.
In an interview after the trial, Spain explained how the jury came to its decision.
No one, she said, voiced what he or she thought the verdict should be until the very end of deliberation. Each person was first given the chance to ask questions, review evidence and discuss the case thoroughly, she said.
Spain said the first thing she did as the foreperson was read a 12-page packet of instructions for the jury out loud. The packet stated specific guidelines to follow as they analyzed evidence and looked at the credibility of the witnesses.
The witnesses who seemed to be of most interest to the jury, Spain said, were Wright’s former roommate, Harry Moore, and William Simmons, a man Moore and Wright knew from a methadone clinic in St. Louis.
"In order to analyze Johnny Wright, we had to look at Harry Moore. In order to look at Harry Moore, we had to look at William Simmons," she said.
Doisy’s disappearance for the most part was a cold case until nine years later, when Simmons was arrested in Maplewood. He told police he had information about a homicide in Columbia involving a young girl.
The jury reviewed Simmons' written testimony to police while they deliberated, Spain said.
Simmons’ information led to Harry Moore. Moore was charged with withholding information in 1985 because, although the police interviewed him several times before, Moore said during the trial that he didn’t tell authorities everything he knew about the night Doisy disappeared. Moore's information led to a warrant for Wright’s arrest.
“For many of us, Harry Moore was the key,” Spain said. “In the end, everyone wanted to see Harry Moore again.”
The jury requested to review his original 1985 video-recorded confession, she said. In it, Moore tells of the night Doisy disappeared. He said he was at a bar when Wright waved him outside, asking for help. In the video, Moore said he saw Doisy’s dead body in the back of Wright’s car. At the end of the video confession, he told Doisy’s mother he was sorry and began to cry.
At about 6:50 p.m., Spain said, they were ready to vote. Their decision to find Wright guilty was unanimous.
"I walked away knowing I had done a good job," Spain said. "We were all very thorough, we were all very serious, and we did what we were supposed to do as citizens."