On January 30, 2004, 32-year-old Harold Wright, a middle school principal in Tacoma, Washington met up with some male friends for dinner. While they were there, three women introduced themselves, one of whom, 19-year-old Sarah Failey, said she recognized Wright from a high school she formerly attended when Wright was the dean of students.
Although the school, Spanaway Lake High School located near Tacoma, had about 1,200 students and Wright was never her teacher, he did recall Failey. Shortly after midnight, Wright and his three friends, including 30-year-old Richy Carter, went to the home of Jerry McClurkin. Failey and her two friends, 21-year-old Stephanie Fincher and 20-year-old Jamie Whittaker, followed in another car for an after party.
Wright later said that the women were drinking heavily, including shots of alcohol, and that 19-year-old Failey had stripped down to her bra and pants and was dancing provocatively in front of all of the men. Wright said he was married and went outside to a deck. When he came in and to find Carter, who was supposed to give him a ride home, he looked into a bedroom and saw what appeared to be people engaged in sexual activity.
Wright said that he left but later came back, impatient to leave, just as Failey was emerging from the bedroom, still scantily clad. She brushed up against him in the hallway and went downstairs. Ultimately, Carter came downstairs and after some small talk, during which Failey gave Wright her telephone number and said she had a “great time,” Carter and Wright left.
The following day, the mother of Stephanie Fincher called police and reported that her daughter and her daughter’s 20-year-old friend had been sexually assaulted the night before by Wright and Carter. She did not mention Failey. Police interviewed all three women and Failey, in her first statement, said she had been assaulted by Carter, but that Wright was not in the room at all. Fincher and Whittaker denied they had been sexually assaulted.
The investigation remained open, but no charges were filed. In January 2007, Failey filed a civil lawsuit against Wright, alleging he had committed a battery. On February 9, 2007, the Pierce County District Attorney’s Office charged Wright and Carter with second degree rape. McClurkin also was charged, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.
Wright and Carter went on trial in the summer of 2007 in Pierce County Superior Court. Failey testified that both men sexually assaulted her, claiming that one held her down while the other raped her. She was unsure if both men or only one had penetrated her. The prosecution introduced the results of DNA tests on a swab taken of Failey’s chest and argued that Wright was guilty because his DNA was found on her chest. DNA tests on a rape kit linked semen to Carter.
Wright testified and denied he assaulted Failey. He said that he had refused her advances. Carter testified that he had consensual sex with Failey.
On July 12, 2007, a jury convicted both men of third-degree rape. Wright was sentenced to six months in jail and Carter was sentenced to 14 months in prison. Both remained free on bond while they appealed their convictions.
In September 2009, the Washington Court of Appeals reversed the convictions and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the trial judge had erroneously granted the prosecution’s request to include a jury instruction on third degree rape. Second degree rape requires force for a conviction, while third degree rape specifically cannot include force. Therefore, the appellate court ruled, third degree rape was not a lesser included offense to second degree rape and the evidence only supported the jury finding there had been rape using force (second degree rape) or that the sex was consensual (no rape).
For the retrial, the case was assigned to a different prosecutor, Jared Ausserer, who learned that the prosecutor at the original trial, Lori Kooiman, had the case files at her home. After retrieving the files from Kooiman’s garage, Ausserer discovered that Failey initially told police that Wright was not in the room when she was sexually assaulted.
Moreover, Ausserer interviewed the crime analyst who had performed the testing on the DNA swab of Failey’s chest. The analyst reported that prior to Wright and Carter’s trial, he had informed Kooiman that the results were consistent with spittle that could have been left when Wright spoke to Failey when she was wearing only her bra.
On January 7, 2013, the prosecution dismissed the case. In February 2011, Wright, who lost his job because of the case, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Pierce County District Attorney’s Office, including Kooiman, and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.
– Maurice Possley