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Wright's criminal past could be issue at trial issue

Richard Wright

Several crucial motions are pending before Hubbard County District Court that could determine aspects of the case against Richard Wright, a pipeline worker charged in a Park Rapids murder one year ago.

Judge Paul Rasmussen heard oral testimony Wednesday on some motions, while others have been submitted in written briefs. The most important issues are whether Wright's criminal past is admissible at trial, and whether past criminal histories can be used to impeach the credibility of witnesses expected to be called to testify at trial.

Wright, 41, is charged in the asphyxiation death of Park Rapids resident Sonya Hennagir in January 2008. He has been jailed in the Hubbard County detention center since his arrest the night of the crime.

He's also charged with attempted murder, for allegedly trying to choke Hennagir's friend Jenny Larson, who arrived at the home sometime after Hennagir died and became entangled in a fight with Wright as she called 911.

Both Wright and Larson have criminal histories. Introduction of Wright's two convictions would be unnecessarily prejudicial, the defense argued, because his last conviction was 15 years ago. Wright has been law-abiding since then; two correctional officers testified Wednesday he has been a model prisoner.

Both sides were in the position of arguing that introduction of criminal convictions could have a prejudicial effect on jurors; that prejudice could outweigh the defendant's right to a fair trial - and could undermine the testimony of a key witness in the case.

Another issue Rasmussen will consider is whether Wright will need to wear restraints during trial. His defense team said jurors tend to view shackled defendants unfavorably in the courtroom. The prosecution says it's a matter of public safety keeping Wright restrained during court proceedings.

A scheduling conference is set for March 2. When Rasmussen has ruled on all of the pretrial motions, he will set a trial date in the case.