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DNA evidence not a slam dunk in case against former MacDill sergeant accused of murder

LARGO — A hair. A blood drop. A skin fleck.

When investigators on TV shows find those bits of evidence at crime scenes, it means one thing: case closed.

Real-life investigators found such evidence after the July 2007 killings of Paula O'Conner and her 15-month-old son, Alijah. A left-handed black glove — covered inside and out with DNA — was found on a couch near the front door of O'Conner's St. Petersburg home. Detectives have said Ralph "Ron" Wright Jr. wore the glove during or just after the killings.

That glove and its DNA was discussed, dissected and argued about for nearly seven hours Wednesday during Wright's capital murder trial, and the testimony of two forensic experts called by prosecutors left the case feeling anything but closed.

Kristen Lehman of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told jurors her analysis couldn't "exclude" Wright as a contributor to the "DNA mixture" of skin cells she discovered on the glove. She also couldn't exclude Alijah, but O'Conner was a match.

Wright, she acknowledged, is among thousands of people whose DNA would have been consistent with what she found. Lehman told jurors she would expect one in 83 African-Americans and one in 35 Caucasians to fit that DNA mixture.

The next witness offered even less support to the prosecution's case. Amy Jeanguenat is a forensic expert from Washington, D.C.-based Bode Technology. She examined a portion of the glove that she believed was previously untested: the interior material around the knuckles.

Lehman had collected DNA with a damp swab, so Jeanguenat tried a different technique. She ran a scalpel over the fabric, believing that might free new cells. Her test could not exclude O'Conner or Alijah — but it did exclude Wright.

Assistant State Attorney Glenn Martin asked Jeanguenat if her findings should cast doubt on those made by Lehman.

"My results don't negate FDLE's and FDLE's don't negate my results," she said. "Our results are independent of each other."

If only for the jury, defense attorney Nathaniel Kidder walked her through the findings again during his cross-examination.

"So there was DNA there?" he asked.

"Yes," she said.

"It just wasn't Ralph Wright's DNA?"

"That is correct."

Still, investigators have said the glove's origin provided the key clue. It is identical to a small number issued to Wright's police unit at MacDill Air Force Base, where he then served as a sergeant. Those gloves, made of a flame-resistant material called Nomex, were kept in a locked storeroom at the base.

Wright had access to that storeroom, and investigators say a security video showed him visit that area three to four hours before the slayings. That video hasn't been presented at trial yet.

Much of the prosecution's argument has focused on Wright's alleged motive.

Wright, now 44, met O'Conner in January 2004. She was single and working as an insurance underwriter. He said he was divorced with a 10-year-old son.

When she became pregnant in 2005, Wright disappeared. O'Conner hired a private investigator to find him. Then she learned Wright was married.

The boy was born on April 9, 2006. He had medical problems that O'Conner couldn't afford to treat on her own. Three weeks before the killings, O'Conner had Wright served with papers at MacDill informing him that she was suing for child support.

During his opening statement last week, prosecutor Jim Hellickson described Wright as a habitual liar who wanted to maintain his bachelor lifestyle and avoid thousands of dollars in child care costs.

The trial is expected to continue for at least another week.

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at jcox@tampabay.com.

DNA evidence not a slam dunk in case against former MacDill sergeant accused of murder 01/23/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 24, 2013 12:06am]
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