TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/AP) — Citing a lack of evidence and the prosecution’s failure to seek others who may have had a motive for murder, the state’s highest court has ordered the release of a former Air Force sergeant on death row for the deaths of an ex-girlfriend and their son.
In a ruling that reads like a murder mystery, the court said Ralph Wright, who was married to another woman, had a motive to kill Paula O’Conner and their 15-month-old son Alijah, and there was a window of time in which he could have committed the murders. But the ruling also noted that there was no physical evidence to tie Wright to the crime and said others also had a motive and the opportunity to kill them, including O’Conner’s daughter Tori Christopher.
“Wright was the only person who had a motive to kill Alijah to avoid a child support obligation and a divorce and he may have been the only person who had a motive to kill Paula in order to maintain a ‘bachelor lifestyle,’ but Tori had a $540,000 motive to kill them both,” the court wrote in its opinion.
Christopher had been in trouble with the law, had fought with her mother about the teen’s boyfriends and caring for her half brother, and she met with an insurance company the day of her mother’s funeral about collecting $540,000 in life insurance — $400,000 of which was supposed to be put into a trust for Alijah, but went to Christopher because he was dead, the court ruling stated.
In addition, the ruling said, O’Conner had relationships with two St. Petersburg police officers, including a married officer who responded to the crime scene and who had been at her house days earlier, and her former mailman, who was also married.
“There is no fingerprint, footprint, blood, fiber, pattern impression, or other physical evidence tying Wright to the crime scene. There is no cell tower evidence placing him in the vicinity of the crime scene. There are no inculpatory statements. There is no murder weapon,” the court wrote. “The only evidence presented by the State to prove that Wright was the murderer is the fact that he had motive and opportunity.”
And that, the ruling said, isn’t enough to convict someone.
The court also noted that investigators focused solely on Wright and didn’t test Christopher’s DNA or the DNA of any other potential suspect. Christopher spent her insurance money within a year, yet investigators never looked into her financial records.
The mailman who was having an affair with O’Conner, Neil Hunt, initially told investigators that they were just friends, and then admitted lying to them about the sexual relationship when he was confronted with text messages he had sent her, including one that mentioned Wright. Still, investigators didn’t look into where he was at the time of the murder or interview Hunt’s wife, the court documents noted.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)