PARK RAPIDS - Nineteen months after a Park Rapids woman died a violent death in her home, her alleged killer will go on trial.
A district judge has set Sept. 8 as the trial date for Richard Derek Wright, 42, a Michigan pipeline foreman accused in the strangulation death of Sonya Hennagir. The trial will be held in Hubbard County District Court.
There have been numerous developments in the hard-fought case lately, as defense attorneys persistently challenge evidentiary matters and the First Degree Murder charges Wright is facing.
Wright, who maintained the killing was the accidental result of intoxication and an intimate encounter gone too far, has been incarcerated in the Hubbard County Correctional Center on $1.2 million bail. He was arrested in the early morning hours of Jan. 29, 2008, at the victim's Discovery Circle home.
Officers arrived to find Hennagir deceased; Wright was engaged in a fierce struggle with Hennagir's friend, Jenny Larson, in the driveway. Wright had been stabbed. Officers had to use a Taser twice to subdue him sufficiently to get him into custody.
In the most recent development, the Minnesota Court of Appeals denied a defense request to throw out a grand jury indictment. The ruling was filed April 21.
On. Sept. 18, 2008, a 17-member grand jury returned a six-count indictment charging Wright with two counts of First Degree Murder along with one count of Second Degree Murder, one count of First Degree Witness Tampering, one count of First Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct and one count of Attempted Murder.
Defense attorneys contended, in their motion for dismissal, that Wright was unfairly prejudiced when he was repeatedly referred to in the grand jury proceedings as "the defendant" or "the suspect."
The high court disagreed.
The defense also questioned whether one grand juror was prejudiced against Wright as the result of a personal experience dealing with a family member who was sexually assaulted. The appeals court found no bias.
But it is a ruling April 20 by District Judge Paul Rasmussen that indicates the intensity of the behind-the-scenes wrangling.
Defense attorneys have sought to have statements Wright gave to law officers on the day of his arrest tossed because Wright requested an attorney shortly after being taken to St. Joseph's Area Health Services for treatment of his wounds.
Several hours after that, Hubbard County investigator Jerry Tatro and BCA agent Brad Barker executed a body search warrant to extract DNA samples, blood-alcohol results and other physical evidence from Wright's body.
At Wright's omnibus hearing in January, a 90-minute audiotape of the proceedings was played in which Wright discusses his role in Hennagir's death.
Rasmussen ruled the tape is inadmissible at trial unless Wright testifies in his own behalf. Then it can be used to impeach him if his testimony is at odds with what he said during the search.
Wright's conversations with Tatro and Barker are also inadmissible unless he testifies.
Rasmussen, in his order, found that, "the officers knew that the defendant had earlier requested an attorney. Some of the officer's statements were designed to entice the defendant to revoke his right to legal counsel."
But Rasmussen also found that Wright gave those statements without coercion, threats or improper pressure from the two officers, so they can be used against Wright if he testifies, Rasmussen ruled.
"It ought to go without saying that the police cannot just hang on like leeches and keep talking to a person after they request counsel in the hope that the person will give them some opening," defense attorneys wrote in their briefs.
Rasmussen also ruled that statements Wright gave other law enforcement officers prior to the search, and a phone conversation Wright had after being booked that was overheard by a jailer, are admissible whether he takes the stand or not.
Rasmussen did not rule on the issue of criminal history and won't until the trial is under way. Both Wright and Larson have criminal convictions in their pasts. Judges weight the prejudice such charges tend to have on juries against their evidentiary necessity.
Defense attorneys also sought to have the murder charges separated from the sexual assault charge, indicating there are separate victims and separate legal issues involved. Rasmussen denied the request, writing the crimes "are part of a single behavioral incident."
Finally, the judge denied a defense request to suppress evidence taken during the search, including the blood-alcohol results.