What to Know
- In an about-face from last week, prosecutors have decided to drop their case against Lawrence Wright in a 2013 murder
- An I-Team report had revealed that the recorded confession by Wright was rambling and confusing; Wright had suffered a stroke
- Wright was freed from jail Monday; he walked out and hugged his baby grandson
A Brooklyn grandfather has been freed from jail following an I-Team investigation that found police obtained a questionable confession and ignored a key witness during a grisly 2013 murder investigation.
Lawrence Wright, a 61-year-old who suffers from stroke-induced brain damage, walked out of Brooklyn Supreme Court on Monday and hugged his 11-month-old grandson. The baby was born during the five years Wright was locked up in jail, awaiting trial in the stabbing death of his former neighbor Denise Pannell.
"I'm happy, I'm happy," Wright said, as he walked out of the courtroom without handcuffs.
But he quickly mourned the five years he spent behind bars.
"All the Christmases. All the Thanksgivings. It all adds up," Wright said. "When they handcuffed me and threw me in the back of that truck I said, 'I didn't do it. I didn't do it.'"
Denise Pannell was found dead in her apartment on Jan. 12, 2013. She'd been stabbed 22 times with a kitchen knife, though none of her blood was ever discovered on Lawrence Wright's clothes or possessions. A bloody boot print and a bloody palm print were discovered in the apartment but neither matched Wright.
In dropping the murder case, the Brooklyn district attorney's office did not say whether prosecutors lost faith in Lawrence Wright's confession or if they believe the real killer is still out there. Instead, Assistant D.A. Bernarda Villalona said Wright's cognitive impairment made further prosecution of the case pointless.
"This defendant is afflicted with a condition that not only appears to be deteriorating but from which he will never recover. As such, The People are moving to dismiss this case in the interest of justice." Villalona said.
But the sudden dismissal of the murder charge seemed to be a departure from just a week and a half ago, when Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn D.A., suggested prosecutors would move forward with the case.
"This is a very serious case in which a woman was stabbed over 20 times - a crime the defendant confessed to," Yaniv wrote. "While we have expressed concerns regarding the defendant's current mental fitness, that is a separate issue from his mental competency at the time of the crime."
NYPD detectives initially took Wright into custody after he approached the murder scene, asking what happened to Pannell, an old high school friend with whom he admitted to having an extramarital affair.
During nearly 17 hours of police questioning, Wright made five statements to detectives, but only the last one -- around 3 a.m. the following morning -- was video recorded.
In that video statement, Wright often stammers, contradicts himself, and struggles to find words. But he does answer in the affirmative when an assistant D.A. asks if he stabbed Pannell.
Wright's family has long maintained police and prosecutors exploited his cognitive impairment to coerce the confession.
“He has a blood clot in his brain that prevents him from being able to express things correctly so if he says yes, he means no and then he has to correct himself,” said Jamel Wright, the former defendant’s son.
"The system failed Mr. Wright," said Sammy Sanchez, the defendant's court appointed attorney.
Denise Pannell's mother declined to criticize prosecutors for dropping the case against Lawrence Wright.
"She's been dead and gone, and nothing is going to bring her back. I think they should let it go," said Pearlita Pannell.
On top of questions about Wright's video confession, the I-Team tracked down April Johnson, the neighbor who called 911 after smelling Denise Pannell's decomposing body. Johnson said she told police she saw a man in a public housing maintenance uniform appearing to steal jewelry from Pannell's apartment the night before her body was discovered. Johnson says the detective she spoke to didn’t appear interested in the tip.
The I-Team reached out to the NYPD to ask if the Denise Pannell murder case is being re-opened. Despite the D.A.’s decision to drop the case, Sgt. Jessica McRorie responded with a one-line email suggesting detectives still stand by their original arrest.
"Following a thorough NYPD investigation, Lawrence Wright was arrested and charged with the murder of Denise Pannell."