March 9, 2021 Theodore Hamm, The Indypendent
“I’m a murderer,” Demetrius Morris told a Brooklyn federal jury in the winter of 2019. “I took innocent people’s lives.”
In order to help prosecutors build their successful case against “G’z Up” gang leader Nicholas Washington, Morris confessed to committing two murders (ordered by Washington) in Bed-Stuy in 2005-6. One of the two people killed was Andrell Napper, an innocent bystander who Morris gunned down in a botched retaliation shooting outside the Tompkins Houses in August 2006.
Shortly thereafter, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office brought murder charges against two men for killing Napper, Stephon Williams and Ronnie Wright. During the preliminary hearings prior to trial, Williams changed his plea from innocent to guilty, but continued to implicate Wright. Williams, however, never took the witness stand at Wright’s trial.
In February 2008, a Brooklyn state supreme court jury convicted Wright of killing Napper. But amid the run-up to the 2019 federal trial, Wright learned that Morris had made statements to law enforcement officials shortly after the murder that were never turned over to his trial defense.
In the two statements, Morris denied he was a gunman and provided divergent accounts of Wright’s alleged role. The prosecution’s failure to turn over such potentially exculpatory material is a clear Brady violation,which may yield an overturned conviction.
All of these points raise a simple question: Why is Ronnie Wright still in prison, where he is not eligible for parole until 2044?
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By 2005, New York City’s crime rate seemed to be in steady decline. That year’s total number of murders, 539, was the lowest the city had seen since the early 1960s. “People will be shocked to see how safe it is to live [here],” a John Jay College professor told the New York Times.
But as that same article noted, several areas of Brooklyn still experienced high rates of violence, including the 79th Precinct in northwest Bed-Stuy, home to the Marcy, Tompkins and Sumner NYCHA projects.
In early August 2006, a memorial service was held for a man known as “Popcorn,” brother of G’z Up leader Nicholas Washington. Ronnie Wright attended the event and wore a T-shirt that day honoring Popcorn, his cousin.
Around 10 p.m. that same summer night, a large throng of people were hanging out on Throop Avenue outside the Tompkins Houses. Suddenly at least two gunmen showed up targeting a man nicknamed “Chizz,” whom they believed to be Popcorn’s killer. Their bullets missed Chizz and instead hit two other men, with Andrell Napper dying at the scene and the other man surviving.
The next day the cops arrested Stephon Williams, then 15, who told detectives that he had arrived at the scene with three accomplices, namely Washington, Wright, and a “light-skinned guy” (later revealed to be Demetrius Morris). Williams’ statements against Wright, however, did not surface in the trial.
Wright, moreover, was the only one of the four people named by Williams who was not directly linked to G’z Up. Wright’s legal team, led by Dennis Kelly, sees this as a key factor explaining why Wright was prosecuted. At the time the feds were investigating G’z Up and in the view of Kelly and company, they wanted to keep that fact under wraps.
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The day after Napper’s murder, a woman with the surname Smith went with her cousin to the 79th Precinct. Smith had a close relationship with Chizz but also had known Wright for over twenty years, albeit not as a friend. She told detectives that Ronnie approached the scene wearing his “RIP Popcorn” shirt and identified him as one of three shooters.
Prior to Wright’s trial, the prosecutor did not provide either of Morris’ statements to Wright’s defense counsel.
After Wright’s arrest a week later, the two witnesses returned to the precinct, where Smith picked Wright out of a lineup. Her cousin, however, did not identify Wright in the same lineup. According to Smith’s trial testimony, she and her cousin had been sitting in her car on the night of the murder, when Wright came over to chat with a third friend in the backseat. Why her cousin didn’t select Wright from the lineup is notable.
Smith also identified Williams and while at the precinct saw a wanted poster for Demetrius Morris, prompting her to tell the police that Morris was the third gunman at the scene. Smith, who at the time had a conditional discharge from the Brooklyn DA’s office for a shoplifting misdemeanor, provided the sole eyewitness for the prosecution’s case against Wright.
No physical evidence linked Wright to the scene. As Morris later told the federal jury, Wright, an aspiring rapper, was a well-known figure in the neighborhood and on parole (for a 1995 felony conviction as a juvenile), making it especially risky for him to show up in a large gathering with a gun. Detectives found no other witnesses placing him at the murder scene.
Two months after Wright’s arrest, Det. Christopher Hennigan of the 79th Precinct traveled to Altoona, PA, where Morris had fled. Morris, who had been arrested on drug trafficking charges, gave two divergent statements about Napper’s murder.
Morris first told Hennigan that he arrived at the scene with five other gunmen, including Wright. He then stated that Wright pointed out Chizz to the other gunmen. But Morris claimed that two others—neither himself nor Wright—did the shooting. According to the transcription of a second statement to the FBI later that day, Morris now explained that the shooters were Wright, Williams, and one of the two others.
Prior to Wright’s trial, Brooklyn prosecutor Howard Jackson did not provide either of Morris’ statements to Wright’s defense counsel. In his summation, Jackson brought up Smith’s identification of Morris as illustration that she could also see Wright. But the jury never got to assess Morris’ conflicting accounts of Wright’s purported role in the murder.
Wright’s legal team is now seeking to overturn the conviction based on the Brady violations. Brooklyn State Supreme Court Judge Ruth Shillingford granted a full hearing to determine whether a retrial will be ordered.
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A few months after the federal trial wrapped up in 2019, the Brooklyn DA’s office initially denied that it had any material regarding Morris’ 2006 statements. Pressed by Judge Shillingford, the DA’s team searched again and found the material. According to the office, “Howard Jackson ha[d] no present recollection of whether he disclosed these documents” to Wright’s trial defense. Jackson remains in the office, in recent years serving as a deputy chief of the Homicide Bureau, training younger prosecutors.
In response to questions from the Indypendent regarding why the office refuses to overturn Wright’s conviction, the DA’s spokesman emailed the following statement: “The defendant was implicated by an eyewitness, by a codefendant who pleaded guilty to the murder and by another accomplice. That man, Demetrius Morris, pointed to the defendant’s involvement and contradicted his alibi defense in his 2006 statements and 2019 testimony. We intend to continue to litigate this case in court.”
As his legal team emphasizes, Wright was convicted as a gunman, not an accomplice. In his federal trial, Morris offered a third account of Wright’s role, this time repeating a version of his initial 2006 account, in which Wright was a shotcaller (allegedly urging Morris and Williams to “go, go, go”), not an actual shooter. The DA’s statement that Morris “pointed to the defendant’s involvement” does not match its trial theory that Wright shot Napper.
Last fall, in a ruling on another case in which the Brooklyn DA’s team fought to preserve a faulty conviction, Judge Shillingford expressed serious concerns about the office’s ability to investigate its own work. “There has got to be an evaluation of what happened in every case,” she wrote. “And that cannot be done by the District Attorney’s office.” Shillingford called for an outside review commission.
It was also Judge Shillingford who originally responded to Wright’s handwritten motion seeking to reopen his case based on revelations during the federal trial. Her final ruling in the case came in January, when she ordered the DA’s office to turn over all files from the NYPD’s collaboration with federal law enforcement during the G’z Up investigation. Shillingford is retiring this year, and Wright and his team are hoping that Judge Sharon Hudson shows a similar degree of diligence.