Thursday, April 26, 2018
News Roundup

Former Air Force sergeant sentenced to death in Pinellas

LARGO — Ralph Wright Jr. was sentenced to death Friday for killing his ex-girlfriend and their baby in a way that the judge called cold, calculated, heinous and cruel.

During a hearing Friday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Thane Covert recounted many details of the killing to explain his conclusion that "the death penalty is the appropriate sentence."

Perhaps the most chilling part of the narrative came as Covert described how Wright came uninvited to the St. Petersburg home of Paula O'Conner, his ex-girlfriend.

It was an early morning in July 2007, and O'Conner was getting dressed for work. She had sued Wright for failing to help support their son, Alijah, a 15-month-old with ongoing health problems.

"She knew that her life was in danger," Covert said, because of the couple's history. O'Conner fought back but was found strangled at the foot of Alijah's crib.

"Paula spent her last moments of consciousness not only in fear of her own death, but also in tremendous fear regarding Alijah's safety," Covert said. Alijah was smothered.

Wright, 46, who was an Air Force sergeant at MacDill Air Force Base at the time of the killings, showed no reaction on Friday as Covert issued the sentence.

Afterward, Victoria Christopher, O'Conner's daughter, said, "For me, justice was served when he was found guilty."

Although Wright and O'Conner once had a romantic relationship, Wright disappeared after she got pregnant. He did not respond to O'Conner's requests that he help support the boy. O'Conner filed a paternity lawsuit and set up a website calling him a "deadbeat dad."

Covert cited several "aggravating factors" about the crime that he said made the death penalty appropriate. Among them:

• Using language from Florida law, Covert said the crime was "especially heinous, atrocious or cruel."

• The killings were cold and calculated because of the way Wright showed up at a time when he knew O'Conner would be preparing for work, the judge said. And he even moved her car from the driveway after killing her so that it wouldn't be immediately clear something was wrong, Covert said.

• It was a double murder.

• Wright murdered for financial gain so that he wouldn't have to help pay his son's medical expenses.

As the law requires, Covert also considered mitigating factors raised by defense attorneys to argue against the death penalty. Although the defense argued that Wright suffered from brain damage, Covert said evidence did not prove it. However, he did agree with defense attorneys that Wright had made contributions to society through his Air Force work and in other ways, and had established loving relationships with family members.

During the trial last year, prosecutors said Wright was the only person with a motive to kill O'Conner and their son. They said a glove found at the crime scene matched ones used in Wright's Air Force unit.

Wright will join 393 other people on Florida's death row. The state has executed 88 people since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1979, including 19 under Gov. Rick Scott.

Contact Curtis Krueger at [email protected] or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.

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