I-Team: Brooklyn DA Says Brain-Damaged Defendant Was Fit for Interrogation, Not Fit for Trial

What to Know

  • Prosecutors are still moving to prosecute Lawrence Wright in a 2013 murder, despite I-Team report showing problems with the confession
  • The recorded confession was rambling and confusing; Wright had suffered a stroke, and the brain damage may have warped his words
  • Despite the I-Team findings, the DA's office says it has full confidence that the video confession was delivered in a sound state of mind

The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office is pushing forward with a 5-year-old murder case, despite an I-Team investigation that revealed the defendant suffered a stroke and his subsequent brain damage may have warped his words in a rambling, video-recorded confession.

In early 2013, Lawrence Wright was arrested for the grisly, fatal stabbing of his high school friend Denise Pannell. She was bludgeoned 22 times with a kitchen knife inside her Batchelder Street apartment. When Wright approached police, asking what happened, he was taken into the 61st Precinct for questioning.

After 17 hours in police custody and four statements that were not video recorded, Wright agreed to make a confession on video. But that confession was confusing and sometimes contradictory. At first, Wright insisted he did not kill his friend. But then he claimed he did stab her in self-defense after she ridiculed his sexual prowess and lunged at him with a knife.

In the most recent court hearing, Assistant District Attorneys Bernarda Villalona and David Kelly told a judge they believe Wright's stroke-related brain injuries are so severe, they've rendered him unfit to stand trial.

"He may be permanently incapacitated," Kelly said. 

Despite the grave assessment of Wright's mental capacity, a spokesman for D.A. Eric Gonzalez told the I-Team that prosecutors continue to have full confidence that Wright's original video confession was delivered in a sound state of mind.

"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," wrote Oren Yaniv, a senior spokesman for the Brooklyn D.A.'s Office.

Last week, the district attorney's office asked Judge Jill Konviser to delay Wright's trial once again so they could seek another mental evaluation. Konviser denied the request, insisting prosecutors either get on with the case or drop the charges.

Jamel Wright, the defendant's son, told the I-Team he believes prosecutors are simply stalling.

"Because they don't want to admit the truth," Jamel Wright said. "They messed this up from the very beginning."

The defendant's son also questioned how his father could have legitimately waived his right to a lawyer during 17 hours of questioning if his mental capacity was impaired by the stroke.

"If we go up there and say that he is permanently unfit to proceed, wouldn't that mean that he was unfit to give a statement?" said Jamel Wright.

Later this month, Konviser is scheduled to decide if the video confession is admissible as evidence at trial.

Aside from questions about the truth and circumstances of Lawrence Wright's confession, the I-Team has uncovered several other facts about the original investigation that raise doubts about whether police arrested the right man.

Though Denise Pannell was stabbed 22 times, detectives never found any trace of blood on Wright's clothes. They did find another man's fingerprints in the victim's apartment. They also found a bloody palm print and a bloody boot print -- but neither matched Wright.

The NYPD has declined to comment on the case.

In March, the I-Team tracked down April Johnson, the original 911 caller who reported the smell of Denise Pannell's decomposing body. Johnson said she told police the night before the body was discovered, she saw a man in a public housing maintenance uniform creeping around the victim's apartment appearing to steal some jewelry.

"When they asked about the boot print, I told them in the middle of the night there was a housing man that came in the house in the middle of the night and he went around back and he picked up a gold chain he threw out her window," Johnson said. 

"I told them that and nobody would listen."

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