State v. Wright

Decision Date22 January 2021
Docket NumberNo. 20100655-CA,20100655-CA
Citation481 P.3d 479
Parties STATE of Utah, Appellee, v. Eugene Christopher WRIGHT, Appellant.
CourtUtah Court of Appeals

Nathalie S. Skibine, Attorneys for Appellant

Sean D. Reyes and Mark C. Field, Salt Lake City, Attorneys for Appellee

Judge David N. Mortensen authored this Opinion, in which Judges Jill M. Pohlman and Diana Hagen concurred.

Opinion

MORTENSEN, Judge:

¶1 Eugene Christopher Wright was convicted of murder and aggravated robbery following a ten-day jury trial. The central issue at trial was whether Wright was the man who shot and killed the victim (Victim) in a restaurant parking lot and then fled the scene in Victim's vehicle. Wright argues that he would not have been convicted had the trial court properly excluded the testimony of an eyewitness to the murder. He further argues that his trial attorneys (Counsel) provided constitutionally ineffective assistance based on the way they handled multiple pieces of evidence before and during the trial. We affirm.

BACKGROUND1

¶2 Wright was introduced to Victim about two months before the murder. Wright worked for a real estate firm that evaluated commercial bridge loans and was seeking investors for a new project. Wright mentioned this to a friend (Friend) who lived in the same building as Wright in downtown Salt Lake City, and Friend suggested Victim as a potential investor who could make the type of million-dollar loan that Wright was seeking. It was in this capacity that Friend introduced Wright and Victim. And though Wright and Victim met in person at least one time to hash out the terms of the loan, it appears that most of their communication was channeled through Friend. Eventually, Victim agreed to loan Wright two million dollars, which was supposed to be funded two weeks after Victim was murdered.

¶3 The day before the murder, an individual using a prepaid cell phone called Victim twice to arrange the meeting at which he was killed. The first call was placed at 9:03 a.m. and went to Victim's voicemail. The caller left a message (the Voicemail) in which he identified himself as "Robert" and told Victim to call him back. The second call was placed at 9:21 a.m., which Victim answered. Victim's assistant was nearby, and overheard Victim respond to the caller by asking which "Robert" was calling him and then later agreeing to meet the caller at a restaurant in Sandy (the Restaurant) the next morning at 7:00 a.m. When he hung up the phone, Victim told his assistant that he was excited about the meeting.

¶4 The following morning, Victim received a final call from the prepaid cell phone at approximately 6:31 a.m. and the call was placed from the general location of the Restaurant. Victim was subsequently seen arguing with a man in the Restaurant's parking lot at approximately 7:00 a.m. A witness (Eyewitness) was sitting in his parked car and saw Victim and the man standing by Victim's white Lincoln Navigator while arguing for about three to four minutes. The two then walked directly in front of Eyewitness's vehicle and argued for about ten to fifteen more seconds, and then the man pulled a handgun out of his pocket with his right hand and shot Victim twice. Eyewitness ducked and hid in his vehicle, and the shooter fired the weapon three more times. At this point, several witnesses in the parking lot saw the shooter flee the scene in Victim's vehicle. Eyewitness called the police and relayed the license plate number of the fleeing vehicle.

¶5 Police arrived at the Restaurant just a few minutes later. They were able to take several witness statements and collect physical evidence from the scene. The crucial witness statement was provided by Eyewitness, who relayed a sequential account of what he had observed and provided a detailed description of the shooter. Eyewitness described the shooter's height, weight, build, clothing, and facial characteristics, and noted that the shooter was wearing a wig of long, black hair pulled back into a ponytail.

¶6 Police also recovered two important types of evidence from the scene, the first being five spent bullet casings that were ejected from the shooter's gun. From this evidence, police were quickly able to determine that the shooter used a 9mm handgun. The second key piece of evidence was Victim's cell phone. After looking at Victim's call history and listening to the Voicemail, police suspected that whoever called Victim on the prepaid cell phone was the shooter.

¶7 Police were able to locate Victim's vehicle several hours later, abandoned on a cemetery's service road just north of the Restaurant. Police impounded the vehicle so that they could test for any physical evidence left by the shooter that might help determine his identity. They eventually found two textured fingerprints on the outside of the driver's door, and another on the inside of the driver's door. They also took numerous DNA samples from various parts of the driver's area, including multiple samples from the steering wheel, gear shaft, door surface/handle, and seat controls. They also collected single samples from the headrest and turn signal assembly.

¶8 Police identified Friend as a possible suspect early on in their investigation. They were aware that Friend was in regular contact with Victim and that Friend owed Victim approximately $1.6 million. This was the amount of money Victim loaned Friend so that he could create a movie about his life, which would focus on Friend's time as an inmate in federal prison on wire fraud convictions. Victim had also paid Friend tens of thousands of dollars based on Friend's apparently false promise that he could secure a sentence reduction for Victim's wife (who was in federal prison for wire fraud) by digging up "dirt" on her ex-husband/former business partner, and then leveraging Friend's alleged connections with a United States senator. Moreover, Victim had spoken with his wife about the 7:00 a.m. meeting the night before he was killed, and she believed that he was meeting with Friend.

¶9 But Friend was ruled out as a possible suspect early in the case based on follow-up investigations. The day after the murder, police showed Eyewitness two photographic lineups that included Friend's photograph along with photographs of other individuals, and Eyewitness did not identify the shooter from either lineup. The lead investigator (Lead Investigator) also met with Friend in person and concluded that he did not match Eyewitness's description of the shooter, nor did his voice match the voice on the Voicemail. And police had also compared Friend's "historical cell phone data"—the cell phone towers that his phone was connecting to the day before the murder—against the prepaid cell phone's data, and determined that Friend was in a different location than the prepaid cell phone when it was used to set up the 7:00 a.m. meeting. From this, police concluded that Friend could not have been the caller.

¶10 Police eventually determined that Wright was the individual who purchased the prepaid cell phone, which they viewed as a major break in the case. It was initially difficult for police to determine who purchased the prepaid cell phone because, despite quickly determining that it was purchased from an AT&T store, there was no real information in the AT&T records as to who bought it—the name of the purchaser was listed as "someone someone" and also listed a fake email address. But police were able to determine that Wright had purchased the prepaid cell phone by looking at surveillance footage of the store on the day of its purchase. Wright was completely unknown to police investigators prior to learning that he had purchased the prepaid cell phone, but after, they focused their investigation on him.

¶11 Lead Investigator followed this development by showing Eyewitness another photographic lineup, this time with Wright's photograph included among five others. Eyewitness immediately identified Wright as the shooter with eighty to ninety percent confidence, explaining that he could not be one hundred percent confident because the photograph did not allow him to see Wright three-dimensionally. With that said, Eyewitness described in detail how Wright had the same facial features as the shooter. Eyewitness's description of the matching facial features largely focused on details that he provided in his initial description of the shooter; however, he did emphasize that Wright and the shooter both had blue eyes, which was the first time he had ever mentioned the shooter's eye color to the police.

¶12 Lead Investigator then interviewed Wright at the latter's office to ask if he had any information about Victim that may lead to the identity of the shooter. Wright explained that he knew Victim only through the negotiations of the loan transaction and immediately—without any mention of the prepaid cell phone by Lead Investigator—discussed how he had purchased a prepaid cell phone for Victim. Wright claimed that Victim had asked him to purchase the prepaid cell phone and then give it to him, which Wright did just days after he bought it. Wright explained that he thought this was a strange request, but he agreed to purchase the phone as a small way to endear himself to Victim in an effort to procure the $2 million loan. Lead Investigator thought it suspicious that Wright launched into an unprompted discussion of the prepaid cell phone. He also determined that Wright matched Eyewitness's initial description of the shooter—including his height, weight, and build—and that his voice matched that recorded on the Voicemail.

¶13 Police later executed a search warrant of Wright's condominium, specifically looking for the 9mm handgun used to shoot Victim. They did not find the gun they were looking for, but they did find an empty gun case in Wright's nightstand for a Springfield XD9, a 9mm handgun. Wright never reported his Springfield gun as missing, and he had also bought a new handgun just three days after Victim was murdered. Police...

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    ...an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the defense." State v. Wright , 2021 UT App 7, ¶ 52, 481 P.3d 479 (cleaned up). "However, there is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim to address both components of the inquiry if......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Article Do You See What I See Part Ii: Litigating Utah Rule of Evidence 617
    • United States
    • Utah State Bar Utah Bar Journal No. 34-3, June 2021
    • Invalid date
    ...identified the defendant in a photographic lineup “with eighty to ninety percent certainty.” State v. Wright, 2021 UT App 7, ¶ 17, 481 P.3d 479. Afterward, and prior to the preliminary hearing, the “[e]yewitness had apparently downloaded a photo of [the defendant] that had been circulated b......

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