Opening statements in D.C. officer’s murder trial

January 14, 2013

Defense attorneys do not dispute that Richmond Phillips, a married D.C. police officer, met with his 20-year-old mistress outside a Hillcrest Heights community center the night before she was killed.

They also don’t dispute that Phillips was scheduled to provide a DNA sample the next day to determine whether he was the father of the woman’s 11-month-old daughter.

But Phillips, 40, did not shoot and kill Wynetta Wright that night in May 2011, defense attorneys said Monday — nor did he leave their daughter, Jaylin, in a hot car to die.

“Rich didn’t do this,” defense attorney Brian Denton told jurors during opening arguments in Prince George’s County Circuit Court on Monday.

His statements offered a first public glimpse of how Phillips plans to defend himself during his murder trial — despite evidence that puts him with Wright hours before her death and suggests a motive for the killing.

Prosecutors have accused Phillips, an undercover vice officer, of shooting Wright in the head and throwing her body in the woods, then driving her car a short distance and leaving Jaylin inside.

He did so, Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks told jurors during her opening statement, to avoid paying child support. DNA testing proved that he was Jaylin’s father.

“He was either going to talk her out of the paternity suit, or he was going to kill her,” Alsobrooks said.

Of Jaylin, Alsobrooks said, Phillips “allowed her essentially to cook in that car.”

Phillips has been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, along with gun and child abuse offenses.

Alsobrooks said prosecutors would play surveillance footage showing Wright and Phillips talking outside the community center before she was killed. She said they would also provide evidence of Phillips’s DNA in Wright’s car and testimony from witnesses saying the two had agreed to meet to discuss Wright’s paternity suit.

And Alsobrooks said detectives would testify that Phillips lied to them more than once as they probed Wright’s disappearance.

Denton called the evidence against his client “circumstantial” and said it proved only that Phillips was dishonest about an extramarital affair.

Surveillance footage showing Wright at the park does not show the killing itself, he said, while the DNA collected from the car was “highly unreliable” because of the way it was handled by the Prince George’s crime lab.

“Proving that he lied does not make him guilty of this,” Denton said.

Denton said Phillips left Wright alone outside the community center early in the morning to take another daughter to school. He said the center was not necessarily safe, noting that investigators had found a bottle of Grey Goose vodka, condoms and cigarettes near where Wright’s body was recovered.

Dozens of Wright’s family members filled six rows of the courtroom Monday, many muffling sobs during an emotionally charged morning of testimony.

Prosecutors called several police officers who testified that Phillips told them that he had no contact with Wright for more than a year before she went missing — an assertion disproved by surveillance footage and phone records that showed more than 100 exchanges from the beginning of 2011 through May.

They also played a video of a June 2011 interview with Phillips — before Wright’s body was found — in which he said that while she once would text him photographs of Jaylin, he had not heard from her since at least January.

In that interview, Phillips told detectives that his wife knew about the affair and paternity suit. He said that they had an “altercation” when he was served with the suit but that she “got over it” even as he acknowledged the child “could have been mine.”

Donna Leggett, Wright’s cousin, testified that she encouraged Wright, who aspired one day to be a sheriff’s deputy, to take Phillips to court. Prosecutors said the two met in a nightclub, but Phillips tried to avoid Wright after she got pregnant.

On the day of the meeting outside the community center, prosecutors said, Wright was excited to meet her baby’s father. Leggett, though, said she “didn’t have a good feeling” and called or texted her repeatedly to make sure she was okay.

Wyvette Wright, Wright’s mother, testified that she called police after she could not reach her daughter on the day she and Phillips were supposed to appear in court. She then called Phillips’s wife and threatened to show up at his house if she could not reach him.

Wyvette Wright said she and “three carloads” of people eventually made good on that threat, though they never found Phillips.

An officer searching the area around the community center found Wright’s body in the woods June 2. Jaylin was found dead in the car nearby. Alsobrooks said temperatures inside the vehicle reached 125 degrees.

Phillips was suspended without pay after his arrest. Testimony in the trial, expected to last six days, resumes Tuesday morning.

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Local