Billy Ray Wright was charged with shooting and killing a man outside a New Haven nightclub in 2008.
His first trial ended in a mistrial after the jury deadlocked 6-6.
The second trial, however, did not go so well for Wright. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 60 years behind bars.
But following a state Appellate Court ruling, Wright could be facing his third trial for the same charge. On Aug. 11, the Appellate Court reversed Wright’s conviction and sent it back to the trial court for a new trial. It’s possible, however, that prosecutors will ask the state Supreme Court to take a look at it first.
The decision hinged on questions that the trial court barred Wright’s lawyers from asking police at the trial, namely, why they didn’t interview certain potential witnesses or follow up on other leads.
“In this case, we conclude that the court could have given the defendant further leeway in cross-examining the investigating police officers regarding standard police procedures, without injecting collateral issues into the trial, and should have done so,” wrote Judge David Borden. “We therefore conclude that the court’s limitations on the defendant’s cross-examination of the police witnesses violated his right to a fair trial.”
At about 1 a.m. on April 27, 2008, Wright, whose nickname was “Wild Billy,” according to court records, went to the Cardinal Club in New Haven with some friends. At 1:42 a.m., as closing time drew near, Wright allegedly exited the club and went to a parked car and got a .44 caliber revolver.
At about the same time, Ronald Bethea exited the club and stood outside talking, first with a friend and then on a cellphone. At 1:47 a.m., prosecutors say, Wright walked up behind Bethea, pointed a revolver at him from underneath his jacket and shot him in the back. At that point, the large crowd that had gathered outside the bar scattered. The victim stumbled back into the bar and fell to the floor, where he died from the gunshot wound. The police responded within minutes of the shooting.
According to Lisa Steele, Wright’s appellate lawyer, police focused on Wright based largely on the identifications made by a bouncer and bartender who saw Wright at the club that night and identified him on a videotape. “It’s a really poor quality video,” said Steele, who added that the shooter is wearing a hat in the video, making it hard to see his face. “It’s taken from four cameras inside and outside the bar.”
Steele said the state’s best evidence was the video and two club workers who identified Wright as the shooter. However, Steele said Wright’s trial lawyer should have been allowed to question police about their investigation.
Borden, in the Appellate Court decision, agreed. He explained that Bethea was shot in the presence of about 25 people who were within a few feet of the victim and shooter. Of them, just four testified and none of them saw the actual shooting.
“There was a noteworthy lack of effort by the police to identify and question any of the other persons shown on the video as potential witnesses to the shooting,” wrote Borden, a former state Supreme Court justice who chairs a Legislature-created task force looking into eyewitness identification issues. “There was no effort to canvass the area or houses across the street to see if anyone there had seen the shooting.”
Borden said there was no evidence of motive or any indication that the victim and defendant even knew each other. “As the defendant repeatedly claimed in the trial court, what the police did not do was arguably as important as what they did do,” wrote Borden. “And, in that connection, it was equally important for the defendant to be permitted to bring to the attention of the jury any differences there may have been between what they did not do in this investigation and general or ordinary police procedures that they had followed in other murder cases.”
Steele acknowledged that asking police why they didn’t pursue certain angles in an investigation can be a risky strategy for a defense lawyer. She explained that’s because it may allow into evidence something that might have been hearsay or otherwise inadmissible. If heard by the jury, it could hurt the defendant’s case.
Steele offered a scenario of a defense lawyer asking a police officer during cross-examination, “Did you do x?” and the officer answers, “No, I didn’t do x.”
“The state then on redirect will say, ‘Why didn’t you do x or y?’” Steele explained. “If the officer has a good reason, you’ve undercut the defense and it’s possible you’ll get stuff out that otherwise wouldn’t have been admissible.”
Steele, who is based in Massachusetts but has a Connecticut law license as well, recalled a case in Massachusetts where a defendant argued that the police focused completely on him and did not pursue other leads. She said the prosecution was allowed to rebut that with information given to police about other suspects, leads and tips that wouldn’t have come into evidence otherwise and hurt the defendant’s case.
“This is a door you open with care when the police have done something unusual,” said Steele. “You want to do a fair amount of research before you do this to get a sense of what the officer may say.”
Wright will remain incarcerated pending an appeal or another trial. Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Ronald Weller did not return calls for comment.•