Pierce County has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it by a former Tacoma middle school principal who lost his job after being prosecuted for rape.
In a 44-page pleading filed last month, the county’s attorneys call Harold Wright Jr.’s lawsuit for wrongful conviction and civil rights violations frivolous and ask that he and his lawyer be sanctioned for bringing it. They also pillory Wright, ridiculing several of his legal arguments and his suggestion that he is a “pillar of the community.”
“One wonders what a 32-year-old, married pillar is doing drinking at 2 a.m. with a 19-year-old former student at a secluded house,” the pleading states.
The woman, who once attended a school where Wright was dean of students, went on to accuse him and a friend of his of raping her at an after-hours party in 2004.
The claims that Wright, now 42, has made against county prosecutors and detectives are baseless, Seattle attorneys Stewart Estes and Mary Ann McConaughy wrote.
“This lawsuit was nothing more than an act of vengeance, recklessly brought in bad faith,” they said.
Wright’s attorney, Dan’l Bridges, has yet to file a response to the county’s motion for summary judgment, but on Tuesday he filed a request to amend Wright’s original lawsuit to include allegations county officials illegally destroyed evidence that would have helped his client in his criminal case.
“That evidence was a tape of a 911 call placed the day after the alleged rape, the contents of which contradicted the elements of the crime Harold Wright was charged with,” Bridges wrote in a pleading. “Pierce County destroyed that exculpatory evidence while at the same time not disclosing to Mr. Wright its existence until after he was wrongly convicted.”
The proposed new complaint also would drop two defendants from the original lawsuit, abandons Wright’s claims that his race was a motivating factor in his prosecution (he’s black) and adds a claim that he was defamed by comments a deputy prosecutor made to news reporters after the state Court of Appeals reversed his conviction.
Both the county’s request for dismissal and Bridges’ request to amend the lawsuit are subject to hearings before U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle this summer.
The legal wrangling is the latest in a long-running battle between Wright and county officials.
He was working as principal at Baker Middle School in 2004 when he and several friends were accused of raping the 19-year-old woman after running into her and two of her friends at a Puyallup-area bar.
Prosecutors charged Wright with second-degree rape in 2007. He denied wrongdoing and fought the charges, going to trial later that year. A jury convicted him and co-defendant Richy Carter of the lesser charge of third-degree rape.
The state Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, overturned the men’s convictions in 2009, with the majority ruling then-Pierce County Superior Court Judge Lisa Worswick should not have allowed jurors to consider the lesser charge.
Prosecutors refiled the second-degree rape charge against Wright but later dropped it, saying their case had fallen apart because of the changing accounts of witnesses and the fact that DNA evidence used in Wright’s trial later was determined to be less reliable than originally thought.
In his lawsuit, which was filed in 2011, Wright contended the case against him was racially motivated. The woman who accused him of rape is white. He also accused county prosecutors of witness tampering and sheriff’s detectives of conducting a one-sided investigation.
“Mr. Wright was wrongfully convicted of third-degree rape,” Bridges wrote in the proposed amended complaint. “His wrongful conviction was obtained by the conduct of defendants in violation of Mr. Wright’s constitutional rights.”
Bunk, the county’s attorneys said in their pleading.
First of all, detectives and prosecutors enjoy wide immunity when performing their jobs, the pleading states, and they didn’t do anything wrong in the first place. Second, Wright filed his lawsuit after the statute of limitations for such claims expired.
Wright’s claims are so out of line sanctions are appropriate, the county’s lawyers added.
“Suing prosecutors for filing criminal charges, making a closing argument or legal training practices is something even a law student would know is improper,” according to the county’s pleading.
“Accusing a detective of violating your constitutional (rights) by interviewing witnesses together, and baselessly accusing the Sheriff’s Office and Prosecuting Attorney of racism (when you admit you were at the house, were present when the rape occurred, and your DNA is found on the victim’s breast) cannot be met without consequence.”
The county wants Wright to pay for its costs in defending the suit, including expenses and attorney’s fees.
In an interview last week, Bridges brushed off the county’s pleading as legal gamesmanship and said he is preparing a response that he hopes to file in the next few weeks.
“It’s reasonable that a defendant takes a shot,” he said. “We still believe the court will side with us.”
Wright, meantime, remains out of work, his attorney said.
“It’s hard to remove that taint once it’s attached to you,” Bridges said.Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644 adam.lynn@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/crime @TNTadam