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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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The elusive search for closure in the Wright case

The word “closure” has draped around the brutal killing of Lorenzen Wright like the long-waited delivery of a made-to-order dress. Sherra Wright’s guilty plea brought the need for it home on Thursday.

Sherra Wright enters Judge Lee Coffee’s court for the change-of-plea hearing. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The ex-wife of the former NBA stalwart, University of Memphis star and hometown hero pled guilty to two counts involving facilitation to kill Wright, whose bullet-riddled body was found in Collierville near her home nine years ago.

The two convictions are to run concurrently, making one effective sentence of 30 years at 30 percent eligibility, meaning she would have to serve nine years to be eligible for parole. With time served, she technically could be free in about eight years.

Wright’s mother, Deborah Marion, was in Criminal Court when Judge Lee Coffee put the painful legal journey into context.

“Family, I want to thank you for your patience. I want to thank you for allowing the legal process to run its course,” Coffee said. “Ms. Marion, I know what has happened to your family, your son, could never be undone by anything this court could do, but I hope it brings you some closure. I hope it allows the family to continue to heal.”

Sherra Wright’s co-defendant, Billy Ray Turner, is scheduled for trial in September. She said little in the courtroom, other than respond to Coffee’s questions to her about the plea agreement and to ask if she could respond directly to Marion’s plea to see her grandchildren.

Marion’s plea came after Coffee gave her the chance to address the court in keeping with the Tennessee Crime Victims Bill of Rights.

“When Ms. Sherra Wright was first in court…I asked you to please be patient and please be civil and not have any outbursts because I wanted you to be present every time this case was set. I will allow you to vocalize or verbalize anything you want right now.”

Judge Lee Coffee swears in Sherra Wright for the change-of-plea hearing. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

The silence was palpable as Marion rose, walked forward and stood within a few feet of her former daughter-in-law. A Shelby County Sheriff’s Office deputy stood next to the seated Wright and between her and Marion.

“Thank you, sir,” Marion said, turning to face the mother of her grandchildren.

“Sherra, I wanna thank you for giving me my grandchildren. That’s what I want to thank you for. But I want you to unlock them so I can visit them and they can see their grandmama. …

“We just love them. We just want to see them. That’s all. …Let them know, we didn’t do anything to them. We love them. …I want you to call them and let them know it’s OK to talk to grandma; grandma still loves you. That’s all I want, my grandkids. That’s it,” she said.

The Wrights had six children.

Deborah Marion addresses Sherra Wright after the guilty plea. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

“I hate what happened to my child, but, you know, …the kids should see their grandmother,” Marion said. “I want to see them tomorrow. …I’m ready for them to come back to home with their family.”

Wright turned to Judge Coffee. “Am I able to respond to her?”

Coffee asked the defense attorneys their preference. No was the reply.

Minutes later outside of the courtroom, Marion shared her immediate reflections.

“Wonderful, wonderful. I am hoping to see my grandkids sooner than later. …I am so glad this is over. My grandkids can heal and rest and come see their grandmama and have fun like we used to.”

Can she actually heal and rest?

“I can start. I’m gonna start,” Marion said.

A reporter described her courtroom address to Wright as graceful.

“I had to think of my grandchildren because if I hadn’t thought of my grandkids I would have went way left. So I had to keep thinking of them. As long as I could think of them, I could say something positive.”

The family is satisfied, knowing the sentence means Wright could spend as little as eight years in prison, she said, emphasizing the intent to be at parole hearings and setting up this exchange.

Q: Do you want to see her serve the full 30 years?

A: Yes, my son is serving life.

Prosecutor Paul Hagerman (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Prosecutor Paul Hagerman said Marion had her priorities in order, referencing the plea to see her grandchildren.

“They are the surviving victims of this thing. She loves them and she was trying to express that their future and the family’s future is what matters more than anything else. You can’t bring Lorenzen Wright back.”

The case frustrated law enforcement for years. It took seven years to bring the first charges, which were against co-defendant Turner.

“This is a case that we worked hard on, not just once it was charged but before that. …As law enforcement and prosecutors go, we did everything we could and it’s a good day.”

Still, parole perhaps after eight years?

“Tennessee law is what it is. … Do I think that there are violent offenses like this that shouldn’t even have parole hearings? Absolutely, I believe that,” Hagerman said. “But more important than that, the reality of it is…I know the family will be there at the parole board one day, whenever that is. …

“This is obviously a violent offense; an offense that has torn apart family and has been highlighted throughout Memphis, the media and everything else. …It’s a guilty plea that they (the family) 100 percent supported. …Today brings a lot of needed closure, or at least the start of it for them.”

Defense attorneys Juni Ganguli and Lori Hall. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

Defense attorneys Juni Ganguli and Lori Hall noted that if Wright had been convicted of first-degree murder or second-degree murder, she would have faced much more time than she faces now.

“In the end, the defense we would have settled on was that she did it but she had been getting beaten repeatedly, consistently for years and that is why her appearance changed the way that it did,” Ganguli said. “If a man six foot eleven and 270 pounds hits a woman and fractures her face, I suppose there could be some anger from that woman at getting beaten repeatedly and consistently.”

The abuse continued after they were divorced, he said.

“The beatings weren’t just confined to Sherra. The children were victims of the beatings too. Nobody wants to hear that and I get that. But it would be a scorched-earth defense that might lead to a first-degree murder conviction and that was not something that I could risk.”

Hall rejected the suggestion that a $1 million insurance settlement was the motivation for murder.

“I never thought that. That never made sense to me and I never have seen any indication that that was a motivating factor in any of it. …

“The children can verify this: He (Lorenzen Wright) had proposed to her again and wanted to marry her. She couldn’t get away.”

Sherra Wright, Ganguli and Hall said, had been “OK” with the planned defense. And in response to a question, Hall stressed that the defense never said that Wright actually pulled the trigger of a gun used to kill her ex-husband.

Ganguli said the defense expected co-defendant Turner and confessed-witness Jimmy Martin to have testified against their client.

Lorenzen Wright’s long-time friend, Montel Nevels, said the family would fight to make sure Sherra Wright serves the maximum time ordered by Coffee. Meanwhile, the family would forward “with resolve in terms of strength. …

“Right now, I am thinking that we’ve finally got closure. What happened today was not a surprise to me. I always knew that…she would never go to trial; that she would come forward. …

“I think she played all of her cards…and stepped up and admitted what she had done.”

Marion’s uncle, Burn Gundy said, “God, Yes” when asked if he could forgive Sherra Wright. “I wanted my niece to get closure. We’ve talked nine years, she and I. I lost a son about the same time she did; mine to cancer. …

“I’ve seen her wanting to know, trying to get to the end of this process to where she could start closure. Now that it is at the end, she can finally start to forgive, never forget. You never forget your child,” he said.

“But she can start now trying to rebuild her life and forgive her. She’s a Christian. She’ll forgive her in time. But that healing couldn’t start before what the judge did today. It had to come to closure before it could happen.”

Deborah Marion, family members and friends gathered briefly outside of the criminal justice complex shortly after Sherra Wright’s guilty plea. (Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)


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