Harold Wright Jr. is happy, but he’s not celebrating the dismissal of the rape charge against him.
The celebration would come, the former principal of Tacoma’s Baker Middle School said Monday, when he gets some semblance of his old life back, one of working with kids and serving the community.
That all ended in January 2004 when a young woman accused Wright and his friend Richy Carter of raping her at a Puyallup-area town house. Wright was placed on leave from his job and, three years later, after a prolonged investigation, was charged with second-degree rape, a felony.
A conviction of the lesser charge of third-degree rape ended his career altogether. He was fired. He had to register as a sex offender. He had a heart attack. He was devastated.
“My life just crashed,” he said. “It was hurtful.”
Wright, who’d always maintained his innocence, got vindication Monday in Pierce County Superior Court. Judge Kathryn Nelson, at the request of prosecutors, dismissed the rape charge against Wright and Carter after prosecutors said their case against the men had fallen apart.
Wright and Carter exchanged hugs with their attorneys after Nelson signed paperwork officially dismissing second-degree rape charges and forbidding prosecutors from refiling them.
“I’m innocent,” Wright said later. “I was never in that room.”
Prosecutors originally alleged that Wright and Carter forced the woman, then 19, to have sex with them at an after-hours party at the home of a third man.
During the men’s joint trial in 2007, Carter testified he had consensual sex with the woman, whom they’d run into at a bar. Wright denied having sexual contact with her at all.
The jury convicted both men of the lesser charge of third-degree rape. They appealed. The state Court of Appeals for Division II overturned the convictions, ruling the jury should not have been able to consider the lesser charge, and sent the cases back for further proceedings.
Prosecutors in 2010 decided to refile the second-degree rape charges against both men.
The case was set to go to trial this week, but new evidence discovered last week and the changing accounts of the chief witnesses, including the woman who said she was raped and her two friends, convinced prosecutors they could not prove the allegations in court.
The woman and her friends testified extensively at the first trial about what happened that night — though they said some of their memories were clouded by alcohol use. They subsequently have told prosecutors they can’t remember much, and new information has surfaced that undermines the credibility of much of their original testimony, court records show.
“During the course of witness interviews prior to trial, it became apparent that our witnesses will be unable to testify from memory about much of this incident,” deputy prosecutor Jared Ausserer wrote in a pleading filed Monday.
The strength of the state’s physical evidence also has eroded, Ausserer wrote.
The prosecution used DNA taken from a saliva sample from the woman who said she was raped to help convict Wright at the first trial. Subsequent tests were unable to pinpoint Wright as the source of the saliva, court records show.
“In a recent defense interview of Jeremy Sanderson, the forensic scientist, it was learned that although the test indicates it is consistent with saliva, he cannot testify that it is Wright’s saliva as it’s a mixed sample,” Ausserer wrote. “This significantly reduces any likelihood of the state being able to prove the charges against Wright.”
Prosecutor Mark Lindquist put it succinctly: “We only proceed with a case when we believe in the truth of the charge. We lost faith in the case.”
Defense attorneys Barbara Corey and Bryan Hershman praised prosecutors for dismissing the charges.
“While it has been our position that this matter never should have been charged, we applaud the courage of the state in dismissing it now,” Corey said.
Some of Wright’s supporters contended the case against him was racially motivated. The woman who said she was raped is white. Wright is black.
The local chapter of the NAACP twice called for the U.S. Justice Department to review the case (the department declined).
In 2011, Wright filed a personal-injury lawsuit against the county in state court in which he claimed the county pursued a case against him in part because he was a black man in power. He previously filed a $15 million claim with the county.
“A consideration of the facts and premises of his investigation and prosecution make it inescapable that if he was not a black school principal, that he would not have been prosecuted,” the lawsuit states.
That case was transferred to U.S. District Court, where it has been on hold while the criminal prosecution was pending.
Wright said he would meet with his civil attorneys later this week to discuss a course of action. He indicated Monday that he is not inclined to drop the suit.
“I want someone to answer for what happened to me,” he said. “I’ve had to answer for this.”
The former principal, who still holds a state teaching certificate, also said he hoped to get back to work in a “social service” job.
“What I’m trying to do is build my life back,” Wright said.Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644