Court rules that accused purse snatcher is eligible for new trial

An Augusta man imprisoned for the past decade for a purse-snatching is entitled to a new trial.

In an unanimous decision reached Sept. 18, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled Joe Wright's trial was fundamentally unfair because the trial judge, Senior Judge William M. Fleming Jr., made improper remarks during the trial.

Mr. Wright stood trial in Richmond County Superior Court in June 1995. The evidence against him came from a woman who described how Mr. Wright snatched her purse. Mr. Wright testified that the woman was lying to cover up her drug use, according to the court opinion.

After prosecuting and defense attorneys questioned an officer, Judge Fleming asked whether Mr. Wright had been advised of his Constitutional rights and if the defendant made a statement.

"He didn't want to talk to you, is that what you're saying?" the appeals court quoted Judge Fleming as saying in court.

The questions came at the end of the state's final witness.

"Such timing suggests that the intent of the court's questions and comment was to rehabilitate the state's case and make an improper implication based on Wright's refusal to provide a post-arrest statement," the appellate judges wrote.

Mr. Wright was convicted and Judge Fleming imposed the maximum 20-year prison sentence.

Mr. Wright was one of many defendants denied access to the appellate courts that The Augusta Chronicle uncovered in an investigation earlier this year.

The Chronicle examined all jury convictions over a 10-year period in Richmond County Superior Court that resulted in prison sentences of at least five years. Nearly half the defendants never got an appeal.

This year, Mr. Wright's family hired attorney Peter Johnson to appeal his case.

Mr. Wright had been trying to get an appeal for years. Though his trial attorney, who was later disbarred, started the process, Mr. Wright had been on his own since September 1996.

The Constitution guarantees everyone the right to one appeal and to an attorney to do the appeal.