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Woman takes stand, denies killing her mother and brother

In Ralph Wright Jr.’s murder trial Friday, Victoria “Tori” Christopher answers “no” to the question: Did she murder her mother?

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

In Ralph Wright Jr.’s murder trial Friday, Victoria “Tori” Christopher answers “no” to the question: Did she murder her mother?

The bespectacled, gray-haired prosecutor leaned into the lectern's microphone and at last spoke her name.

A bailiff walked to the back of the courtroom and through a door. Heads turned and eyes followed. Voices fell silent. Everyone waited, but she didn't come.

Her family members, packed into wooden benches, mouthed the same words to each other: "She's crying."

Victoria "Tori" Christopher had expected to testify — to face Ralph Wright Jr., the man accused of murdering her mother and brother — more than a week ago. Last Thursday and Friday, she woke up believing she would take the stand. She thought the same thing when the trial continued on Tuesday and Wednesday. After Thursday's proceedings ended, and again she didn't testify, Christopher stood in a red dress outside the courtroom, sobbing.

Finally, on Friday, she walked through that back door. She clutched a tissue and rosary beads. She wore a gray blouse spotted with black hearts.

In July 2007, prosecutors say, Wright strangled his ex-lover, Paula O'Conner, and their 15-month-old son, Alijah. They say the former Air Force sergeant did it because she was suing him for child support and he didn't want to pay or give up his bachelor lifestyle.

The significance of Christopher's testimony grew much larger when defense attorney William Bennett told jurors in his opening statement last week that she had a more compelling motive than anyone else to kill her mother and brother.

O'Conner had, among multiple policies, $540,000 in life insurance, $400,000 of which would have gone into a trust for her son. Because both she and Alijah died, the money went to Christopher.

On Friday, Christopher, now 24, denied knowing the policies even existed before the murders.

Bennett has told jurors that detectives didn't thoroughly investigate where that money went or whether Christopher and any of her former boyfriends were involved in the killings.

When asked by Bennett, she acknowledged spending all the money in less than 18 months, but denied giving any of it to boyfriends. Investigators never subpoenaed her financial records.

The defense attorney also highlighted her troubled past. Though never convicted, she was arrested in recent years on charges of drug possession and battery. She even acknowledged once breaking into Wright's home. She said she went to "snoop around" for O'Conner, who suspected Wright had lied about being divorced. He was, in fact, still married.

Jurors also heard about the sometimes tumultuous relationship Christopher had with her mother. Months before the crime, O'Conner had kicked her out of the house and taken away her keys.

But their dynamic, she testified, was no different from any other teen girl and her mother. They argued, often over the men Christopher dated, but loved each other. She said she was dedicated to her brother.

For much of the last two weeks, prosecutors have presented witnesses who described her as a doting sister who devoted hours to Alijah. Among many nicknames, she called him her "little man." He crawled after her when she walked by. He cooed when she spoke to him and smiled when she entered the room.

Christopher insisted that she had never attacked her mother.

"Would you have?" asked prosecutor Jim Hellickson.

"No," Christopher said. "I was scared of her."

"Why?"

"She was my mom."

People who saw Christopher in the moments after she learned of the deaths described her as hysterical. They told jurors she looked in shock and nearly collapsed. She struggled to breathe.

"The whole day is kind of blurry," she said Friday. "I can't put into words how I felt."

After more than three hours of testimony, Hellickson finally asked the two long-awaited questions.

"Tori," he said, "on July 6, 2007, did you murder your mother?"

As if the words weighed more than she could bear, Christopher sank into her chair. Her shoulders fell. She shook her head.

"No," she said.

"Did you murder your brother, Alijah?"

"No," she said again, her head still shaking.

Her denial was the last thing the jury heard Friday night. Judge Thane Covert told her to step off the witness stand, and he allowed the jurors to leave.

Then he told the bailiff to bring Christopher back.

Bennett stepped back to the lectern. He brought up her ex-husband.

"Have you threatened his child before?" he asked.

"I have before," she said. "Yes."

He asked if she remembered threatening to shoot the boy. She said she didn't.

The defense lawyer then mentioned a woman and her young son. He asked if Christopher had ever threatened to "smash" the boy.

"I don't know what I've said," she responded. "I know I've threatened both of their children."

On Monday, the judge will decide if Bennett may ask her those questions in front of the jury.

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

Woman takes stand, denies killing her mother and brother 01/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 10:57pm]
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