California’s Three Strikes law snares a woman claiming innocence. She’s also got just six months to live.
Patricia Wright is a prisoner in Central California Women's Facility's Nursing Unit coping with an extraordinary array of challenges. She is legally blind, has stage-four cancer that has spread to her breasts and brain – causing her to lose control of her bodily functions and leaving her diapered.
She's been given six months to live.
What's worse is that she's innocent. She had been convicted of killing her husband when the Los Angeles Police Department reopened a 17-year-old cold case after two “witnesses” taped a confession pegging Wright and family friend Lawrence Slaughter as the killers.
But both witnesses have since recanted their testimony.
Wright's brother, Larry Wright, 47, and her neighbor Janet Marcelin, 55, [withdrew their testimony] after Patricia was sentenced to life without possibility of parole.
Marcelin, a business owner, claimed the police had her rehearse and record a fake confession after intimidating and harassing her during the investigation.
Marcelin said the detectives, referring to Patricia Wright, asked, “Don't you want that [expletive] off the street?”
The other witness, Larry Wright was facing a 10-year sentence in 1995 for two felonies, risk of an injury to a minor and violating a restraining order, and a misdemeanor for threatening by saying, “I'm going to kill you,” to his wife after he caught her cheating. At that time he was living in Connecticut.
“I had never been in jail before and I wasn't allowed to go outside. It was like living in your room and getting to go to your kitchen for one hour a day,” remembers Wright. “I wanted to get out of there.”
A visit from the LAPD
Within about seven months of [Wright] being placed in a maximum-security prison, the LAPD paid him a visit.
They told him that if he testified against his sister, Patricia, he would be able to get out of prison sooner. He jumped at the opportunity with the understanding that the emphasis would be on Lawrence Slaughter and not his sister, Patricia.
Lawrence Slaughter is currently serving a life sentence in Calipatria State Prison for the murder of Jerome Scott as well.
“I made the confession on tape that I had rehearsed with the LAPD,” said Larry Wright. “I was told they wanted to convict Lawrence Slaughter and not my sister.”
Her brother Larry's false confession was all the LAPD needed to put Patricia behind bars. Larry Wright's sentence was reduced to only two years in prison with five years of parole.
Immediately after getting out of prison in the year 2000, Larry wrote a detailed letter stating that he lied about his sister's involvement in the death of her husband.
“I have to wake up every morning with the freedom that God gave me knowing that my sister is incarcerated for life and that my lies put her there,” Larry wrote in a letter to the LAPD after he had been freed.
Patricia's alleged motive
According to the autopsy report, Patricia's husband, Jerome Scott, had only a few months to live because of a health problem involving a bloodless liver and pancreatic fibrosis.
The LAPD alleged that Patricia's motive was to get Jerome's insurance money, which had a value of $30,000. She has always denied this allegation and says that both she and Lawrence Slaughter are innocent.
“During the trial, the prosecutor said that the insurance reward would have been $180,000, which was totally exaggerated,” said Arletta Wright, Patricia's sister, who has been championing Patricia's innocence from the beginning of Patricia's time in prison.
According to the Division of the Adult Institutions and Gov. Jerry Brown's office, because of Wright's Three Strikes sentence of life without possibility of parole (LWOP), she does not qualify for medical parole. Senate Bill 1399, the compassionate release bill signed into law a year ago, allows prisoners who are permanently and medically incapacitated to be released from prison and into the care of family and caretakers.
While Patricia does not qualify for medical parole, she can still file for executive clemency or compassionate release, which she has already done.
[But] this met with more resistance from Gov. Jerry Brown's office. Brown's action to grant clemency was rescinded after discovering that Patricia Wright had two prior felonies [dating] from when her son had stolen two 99-cent toys and a hand towel from an open house 15 years earlier. These two offenses were classified as felonies when they should have been only misdemeanors, since the property stolen was valued under $400.
Because of these two prior offenses, Patricia was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole under California's Three Strikes Law.
First two strikes
On June 14, 1989, Patricia Wright and her 7-year-old son, Alfie, were riding in a car driven by family friend Lawrence Slaughter.
According to Arletta Wright, Patricia needs to be driven because she has been legally blind since the age of 16. Alfie liked to look at model homes, so they decided to stop by an open house that was located at 13810 Redberry St. in Moreno Valley, California.
During the tour Alfie was able to slip away into a room that was made for a little boy.
“I decided to take the toys and hide them so my mother wouldn't see them,” said Alfie who is now 29-yearsold.
Alfie went on to say that he noticed that the woman hosting the model home was following them very closely the whole time that they were there.
When they were getting ready to drive away, a police car pulled up behind them and checked their car. The woman who was showing the home alleged that Patricia was involved in the theft.
Alfie says that the next thing he knew his mother was being handcuffed and taken to the county jail even though the woman who was showing the model home was given back the stolen property.
Patricia pled guilty on April 2, 1990.
“The trial was taking so much of my time. I had five children to take care of and it was costing me so much money to travel two hours from Riverside to Los Angeles and sit in court all day,” Patricia said. “I decided to just plead guilty to get it over with.”
In 1981, Patricia Wright's second husband, Willie Jerome Scott, was found stabbed to death in his mobile home park in Los Angeles.
Patricia complied fully with the original investigation of the crime and wasn't a suspect because none of the blood or fingerprints found at the crime scene matched hers. The case was eventually abandoned.
But in October 1998, the LAPD established a “cold case” task force and reopened the murder case 17 years after Jerome Scott's death.
The fact that Jerome was gay was left out of the trial altogether. So the issue that he was picking up men in downtown Los Angeles was irrelevant to the case although that could have been a lead to the killer.
In another peculiar turn of events, LAPD had failed to preserve the evidence when Jerome Scott's body was found two days after his murder. A knife and the clothing worn by the victim potentially had all of the answers that would have led to the real murderer, but that evidence was destroyed by the LAPD.
“Why would the LAPD destroy the evidence,” Patricia's sister Arletta and other family members still ask to this day. “Why wouldn't they let any of her witnesses testify? And why would the judge not let the information about Jerome being a homosexual be known to the jury.”
According to William G. Kelley, director of the Law Offices of the Orange County Associate Defender, Patricia did not receive a fair trial.
“There are a number of issues in the case,” Kelley said in a letter to his associate, Christopher Darden,
“including the competency of counsel, prosecutorial misconduct and, of course, compelling legal error by the court.”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Families to Amend California's Three Strikes (FACTS) and Change.org are among the many groups that have been working to get Patricia Wright released from prison.
“I am outraged at the rush to judgment displayed by the LAPD,” wrote Michelle Alexander, civil rights attorney and author of the influential book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” in a letter to Patricia. “I have never seen anything this egregious in all my years.”
On Aug. 31, 2011, at 11 a.m., Wright's family, the Action Committee for Women in Prison, and the FACTS community and supporters gathered in front of Gov. Brown's downtown Los Angeles office demanding that he grant Patricia Wright clemency.
“We can help by getting the word out, by bringing a lot more support to a case that is so insanely bizarre,” said Geri Silva. “She was wrongfully convicted.”
The Riverside County Public Defender stated that the court may reduce her first two offences to misdemeanors because they are classified as “wobblers.” “Wobbler” refers to a criminal offense that can be classified as either a misdemeanor or a felony. Judges may have the discretion to reduce a felony in a “wobbler” case to a misdemeanor.
“Ms. Wright desires to live her last days with her five children and six grandchildren,” was in the statement as well.
The hearing of the “motion for reduction of felony to misdemeanor” will be held Tuesday, Oct. 11, at 1:30 p.m. in the Riverside Courthouse at 4050 Main St. in Department 42. Judge Richard T. Fields will be presiding over the case and Public Defender Ruby Ramirez will be representing Patricia for the Riverside County Public Defender's Office.
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Tuesday October 11, Patricia Wright's appeal for downgrading her two earlier felony convictions to misdemeanors was turned down by Judge Becky Dugan. The Wright family currently has three other pending motions in place in Riverside and Los Angeles County. The first is a motion for recall taking place in Los Angeles to downgrade Patricia's sentence of life without parole to life with parole. The second motion is to the remand the murder case back to Riverside. And lastly, a motion to withdraw the guilty plea from her first two felonies. For further links to the case, please click HERE.
Crystal Carter was a Reporting Fellow with the Public Welfare Foundation/John Jay College Center for Media, Crime and Justice California Three Strikes Reporting project. An earlier version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.