NEW PORT RICHEY — Jackie Braden had his recently murdered stepfather's wallet in his pocket. The two revolvers used to kill his mother, Sherrill Wright, and possibly his stepfather, David Wright, were found at the hotel where Braden was arrested. In his room, he had 43 pounds of marijuana and nearly $200,000 in cash stolen from the Wrights' green metal safe, along with green-paint-flecked pry bars and clothes stained with his mother's blood.
Braden's attorney, Dennis Watson, asked jurors Thursday to disregard that evidence.
"The state has to prove that he killed his parents," Watson said in his closing statement to the 12-member jury, "not that he had stuff from their house."
The argument didn't sway jurors, who deliberated for less than two hours before convicting Braden, 40, of two counts of first-degree murder. Circuit Judge Michael Andrews gave Braden two sentences of life in prison.
Braden's friend, Pam Brown, wept. She hopes the verdict will be overturned. "The defense didn't do its job," she said.
Braden's ex-fiance, Angel Peck, visited Braden in jail shortly after his arrest. At the time, she was seven months pregnant with their daughter, who is now 3. She cried after the verdict. She said David and Sherrill Wright were kind, loving, generous people. Sherrill loved to garden. David was an easy-going hippie.
"They were so amazing," she said.
The couple, both 54, were killed in their Shady Hills home either late Feb. 7 or early Feb. 8, 2008, prosecutors say. David Wright was shot from behind while he relaxed in a recliner. The bullet went through his head, shattered a window and was not recovered. Prosecutors believe he was shot first, the blast waking his wife.
Sherrill Wright "is in her nightgown. She gets out of bed, startled by the sound," Assistant State Attorney Chris Sprowls said to the jury. "And what is she greeted with? Not the face of a stranger. It was the face of her own son with a .357 magnum pointed at her face."
Sherrill Wright was shot at close range in the jaw, the collarbone and the chest. Gunpowder blackened her face. Her lungs were punctured, but she could have been awake for minutes and unconscious for hours before she died, an expert testified, as her son used saws, drills and possibly his gun to hack his way into the family's safe, which was kept in the Wrights' bedroom.
Braden lived with his mother and stepfather, a contractor who also made money selling marijuana. Their home was a secured compound, prosecutors say, gated and fenced. It had an alarm system and two guard dogs. Braden's ex-fiance testified the dogs, a Rottweiler and a German Shepherd, were so aggressive she was not allowed to be in the same room with them.
"It wasn't somebody from the neighborhood who came in there and slaughtered these two people," said Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis during his closing statement. "It wasn't somebody who was just a drug dealer who tried to break into the house.
"Why? Because those dogs wouldn't have allowed it."
He said one of the dogs refused to leave the body of Mrs. Wright. Animal control had to remove the dogs before investigators could get in to survey the scene. Halkitis said those dogs were there for a purpose, to protect David and Sherrill Wright. That meant, he said, the dogs trusted the killer.
"The one person who knew those dogs, the one person who lived there, is sitting right over there," Halkitis said, walking over to the defense table and standing in front of Braden.
"This is the fella," Halkitis said, pointing toward Braden.
The defense argued that other people were familiar enough with the dogs, such as David Wright's brother who discovered the bodies, to have accessed the house and murdered the couple.
"Obviously Jackie Braden was not the only person who could deal with the dogs," Watson said.
When Halkitis pointed toward Braden, he did not react. Braden did not express much emotion throughout the trial, which began Monday. He considered testifying, but changed his mind.
The judge asked Braden if he was okay with this. The defense did not call other witnesses.
"It doesn't make any sense to be a one-man band here by myself," Braden told Andrews.
Prosecutors said Braden partied at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and at beach hotels after the murders, leaving a substantial trail of evidence in his wake.
Investigators working the case "didn't need Hansel and Gretel," prosecutor Sprowls told the jury. "They had Jackie Lee Braden. He left more bread crumbs than they could pick up."
Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.