CLEARWATER, Fla. — The day after he was convicted in the deaths of his former lover and their 15-month-old son, former MacDill Air Force Base sergeant Ralph Wright threw his sentencing hearing off course this morning by demanding, against the advice of his attorneys, to speak to jurors.
Wright, 44, who did not testify at his double-murder trial, told Pinellas Circuit Judge Thane Covert he wanted talk directly to the jury. He said prosecutors' portrayal of him during his four-week trial was twisted "not the man I am."
"It's just not the truth," Wright told the judge. "I want to address this jury."
Wright is facing the death penalty. The same jurors who convicted him on Thursday will recommend whether he should be executed. Covert will make the ultimate decision, giving "great weight" to the jury's recommendation.
Wright's stance apparently caught his defense attorneys off guard. They asked Covert if they could confer with their client, and the judge cleared the court of spectators so they could talk about what Wright planned to say.
"It is my recommendation … that he should not testify … on the issues he wants to testify about," Defense Attorney Bjorn Brunvand told the judge after their conference.
Brunvand said Wright might inadvertently help prosecutors secure a death sentence. His attorneys plan to argue that he should be sentenced to life in prison – the only other possibility for a first-degree murder conviction.
Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin noted that Wright may be hurting himself if the case is successfully appealed. Under that scenario, anything Wright tells the jury during sentencing can be used against him if the case goes to trial again.
Covert has not made a decision yet about he'll allow Wright to address jurors.
Throughout the four-week trial, prosecutors elicited testimony that portrayed Wright as a liar, a womanizer and an adulterer.
He told several girlfriends he was on secret missions, sometimes in Africa, when he was merely a military police sergeant entrusted with some security duties at MacDill. He told at least two paramours he was divorced, when he wasn't. And he repeatedly lied about sleeping with murder victim Paula O'Conner and being the father of their child, Alijah, who was 15 months old when he was killed. Wright's attorneys conceded during his trial that the child was his.
On Thursday, Wright was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of O'Conner and their son. On July 6, 2007, he strangled O'Conner in her St. Petersburg home and asphyxiated the boy by shoving the toddler's face into the mattress in his crib.
O'Conner had filed suit to force Wright to acknowledge he was the boy's father. She wanted child support, and she wanted help with the child's medical bills. Born with congenital heart defects, Alijah had three heart surgeries and a shunt inserted into his skull to help with fluid in his brain.