In a widely publicized display of grief, family members of slain county code-enforcement officer Mickey Wright raged outside a criminal courtroom April 6th at the announcement that Wright's killer, Dale Mardis, had struck a plea bargain and received a 15-year sentence on a second-degree murder charge.
That may not have been the last fallout from the controversial decision.
Wright's widow and his sister-in-law claim that they were not informed of their rights, as family of the victim, under state law. They also claim that they should have by law received adequate notice of the plea bargain from the office of Shelby County district attorney general Bill Gibbons, and that they were not consulted as the plea arrangement between Mardis and the district attorney became a solid agreement.
"Gibbons has indicated that he consulted with the family about the plea bargain. Our position is that we were totally shocked to learn that the prosecution was considering any type of plea bargain," says Gail Miller, Wright's sister-in-law. "We heard about it approximately two hours before the judge made his ruling."
Wright's widow Frances explains that the family has since learned that "a victims'-rights coordinator should have sat down and helped us prepare a victim impact statement providing financial, emotional, and physical effects of the crime on the family. We were never given that opportunity."
Under Tennessee law, "the sentencing judge shall solicit and consider a victim impact statement prior to sentencing a convicted offender who has caused physical, emotional, or financial harm to a victim." State law also provides that the family members of violent-crime victims be informed of plea arrangements prior to any entry into an agreement.
Frances Wright met with state prosecutor Thomas Henderson April 3rd, and he prepared her for what to anticipate. "Everything was on go," she says. "They would be picking the jury that Monday and Tuesday [April 2nd and 3rd] ... and going to trial next Monday [April 9th]. Thursday [April 5th] I get this call about 11:30 that they're accepting a plea. I said, 'We don't want to do the plea thing.' They said, 'It's really not your choice.'
"We understand that, but we don't feel that the court considered the victims' rights," says Wright.
The Flyer asked Gibbons' office to comment on the Wright family's grievances. No one responded by press time. (The DA's office has since responded to the Wright family's claims.) In a statement distributed to local media (see Letters), Gibbbons said that his office always talks with a victim's family in the case of a plea bargain: "I regret that we were unable to convince the Wright family that our decision was the correct one, given all the circumstances, including ... the possibility that Mardis would serve less prison time or none at all if we went to trial."