Prosecutor Reflects On Murderer’s Early Walk

BERLIN – The perpetrator
of one of the most heinous crimes in Ocean City history, Jermaine Wright, who
in 1995 lured a young girl in the resort for Senior Week into his car before ultimately
murdering her and discarding her body near a country road, gets released from
prison next week, years before expected and decades earlier than he would have
if not for a life sentence overturned on legal issues.

Wright will walk out of
prison next Friday a free man after serving roughly seven years of a 15-year
sentence imposed as part of a plea bargain in 2001. The plea bargain was
reached after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned his 1999
conviction, which resulted in a life sentence for Wright, because the jury was
erroneously supplied with newspaper articles about his earlier convictions for
similar crimes in North Carolina.

Instead of serving life
in prison for the murder of then 16-year-old Krista Ruggles, Wright will once
again walk the streets after serving just seven years for the crime after the
appeals court overturned his earlier conviction and prosecutors were uncertain
they could get the same result in a new trial. Not sure he could convince a new
jury Wright committed the murder, Worcester
County State’s
Attorney Joel Todd entered a plea bargain with Wright in 2001 resulting in a
15-year sentence.

Seven years later, Todd
stands behind the decision given the uncertainties about a key witness in the
case from the original trial. He said this week he has no regrets about
entering the plea bargain although the case is still very fresh in his mind.

“That is one of the
cases that most stands out in my mind during my career,” he said. “It didn’t
end up the way we were hoping it would end up for a lot of reasons.”

On June 14, 1995, two
weeks shy of her 17th birthday, Ruggles and a friend went to an
under-21 nightclub in Ocean
City where they first met
Wright. After the girls left the club, they walked north on the Boardwalk
toward their hotel when they were approached again by Wright, who offered them
a ride back to their room at the Dunes Manor. At the hotel, Wright asked
Ruggles to stay behind so he could talk to her for 10 minutes and she complied,
over the objections of her friend. It was the last time she would be seen
alive.

Around 3:45 a.m., the
roommate saw Ruggles drive off with Wright in his car. She waited in the lobby
until about 5:30 a.m. before going back to Ruggles’ room. Later that morning,
she filed a missing persons report with the Ocean City Police. On June 19, a
woman biking on Fooks Rd.
near Whaleysville noticed something pink about 25 feet off the road. Closer
inspection revealed the body of a teenage girl, later identified as Ruggles.

An autopsy determined
her death had been caused by manual strangulation and blunt force injuries to
the head. There was also evidence of sodomy. The autopsy estimated Ruggles had
been killed between three days to one week prior to her discovery with four
days the most likely scenario, which corresponded to her chance meeting with
Wright, who immediately became the prime suspect.

Wright was later
indicted for the first-degree murder of Ruggles. In 1999, a Worcester County
jury found Wright guilty of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in
prison. However, it later came to light the jury had been inadvertently
provided with newspaper articles about Wright’s earlier arrests for sex
offenses in North Carolina, which provided the catalyst for a successful appeal
of the murder conviction.

In March 2000, the
Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed access to the newspaper articles could
have prejudiced the jury against Wright, consciously or subconsciously, and
upheld the appeal, sending the case back to Worcester County Circuit Court for
a retrial. At the time of the first trial, the Circuit Court judge admonished
the jury not to consider the articles in their deliberations and was confident
they had heeded his advice, but the appeals court ruled otherwise.

“Although the jurors may
have honestly thought that they could disregard the information in the
articles, in our judgment, any doubts the jurors may have had, reasonable or
otherwise, would have been resolved against appellant – even if only
subconsciously – as a result of the information contained in the articles,” the
opinion read.

With that said, the
appeals court remanded the case back to Worcester County Circuit Court for a
new trial. Although the evidence against Wright was largely circumstantial,
Todd and the prosecution team did have strong testimony from a correctional
employee and Wright’s cellmate, Antonio Lewis, that the defendant talked freely
about the case while incarcerated.

Wright essentially
confessed the crime to Lewis at one point and his testimony was a lynchpin in
the original trial, but bringing Lewis back to testify at the new trial would
have been difficult if not impossible, which was largely the reason for the
plea bargain in the new trial in 2001.

“One of the things that
had the biggest impact on the jury was the cellmate’s remarks about Wright’s
involvement in the homicide,” said Todd this week. “We knew from talking to the
jury that his testimony was the key to the case. They told us it was borderline
and that he pushed them over the edge.”

Todd said this week,
getting Lewis, who had since been released from jail, to return to testify in
Wright’s second trial was a major source of concern for the prosecution.

“At the time of the
trial, the cellmate was still in jail and it was easy just to bring him over to
testify,” he said. “By the time the case was rescheduled, he was no longer in
jail. We subpoenaed him, but we were not certain if he would show up.”

Short of having its star
witness on hand for the second trial, the prosecution team opted to enter a plea
bargain with Wright rather then run the risk of a complete acquittal. Seven
years later, Todd stands behind the decision despite the early release date for
the convicted murderer.

“Not knowing if the key
witness would show up or not, we entered a plea bargain and agreed to the
charge Wright ultimately pleaded guilty to,” he said. “As luck would have it,
or bad luck I suppose, he did not show up. In hindsight, it was the best
decision.”

In its majority opinion,
the Court of Special Appeals agreed the case against Wright hung largely on the
testimony of Lewis, which, in some respect, affirmed Todd’s decision to reach a
plea bargain in the second trial.

“The jury was also
entitled to believe or disbelieve the testimony of Lewis, that appellant had
confessed to killing Ruggles,” the appeals court opinion reads. “Absent the
confession, the evidence was circumstantial and the jury could have found the
appellant not guilty.”

As part of the plea
bargain, Wright was sentenced to 15 years in jail. He was given credit for four
years he served in North Carolina for an
unrelated conviction and was also credited for the six months in spend in jail
in Worcester
awaiting trial. Once behind bars, Wright was able to knock almost four years
off his sentence for good behavior and for taking education courses, moving his
release date up to Feb. 8.

Todd said this week the
hardest thing to come to grips with is that Wright will have the opportunity to
start life anew while his victim will not be afforded the same chance.

“The saddest thing is,
during that time period, Kristina Ruggles was just a young girl and she’s still
gone,” he said. “My hope is that Jermaine Wright reformed himself while behind
bars and he will never harm another person, but Kristina Ruggles is gone
forever and nothing can bring her back.”

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