by ZACH KAYSER

 

The man who confessed to murdering his dementia-afflicted wife last July was sentenced to 128 months in prison Wednesday. With credit for time served, that works out to about nine years and nine months. 

Joseph Bailly Wright, 80, wore fluorescent green prison garb and was emotional at times as prosecutors and his public defender argued before Winona County District Court Judge Mary Leahy over whether Wright should spend his sentence in prison or on probation as punishment for killing his wife Klara at their Dakota home. 

Wright had initially pleaded not guilty and the case was set to go to trial this spring, before a last-minute plea deal prompted a “durational departure” — that is, a shorter proposed sentence than what is outlined in the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines. When Wright switched his plea to guilty, prosecutors dropped the sentence they were seeking down to 128 months instead of the 306 months that would be typical under the guidelines for a second-degree murder charge. 

On Wednesday, the defense team headed by Public Defender Graham Henry argued that the court should cut the sentence even shorter, or change it to probation rather than prison. Key to Henry’s argument were the extraordinary circumstances of the murder: Wright claimed he killed his wife in order to spare her further suffering from her advanced Alzheimer’s-related dementia. He said in an earlier hearing that the day of the murder, Klara didn’t recognize him. He said he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists, but it was ineffective. 

Henry went on to assert that Wright wasn’t a threat to anyone, and that he would suffer in prison. Wright had already been a victim of financial fraud while in jail, Henry said. 

“Prison is toxic,” Henry said. 

Attorney Megan Elkin of the defense gave Wright reassuring pats on the back multiple times when he broke down over the course of the hearing.

The prosecution, led by Winona County Attorney Karin Sonneman, countered by saying Wright had a plethora of options to address his wife’s dementia other than murdering her. He was not acting with her best interest at heart and had in fact failed his marriage vows to her in a number of ways, Sonneman said. He had an affair with a woman named Gail Antle in Florida, even taking Klara along on a visit to Antle's house, where Joseph and Antle had a sexual liaison, Sonneman said.

The contrast between the defense and prosecutions’ positions was crystalized in a back-and-forth over a particular aspect of the killing: Wright used a meat tenderizer to club Klara on the head before stabbing her. The defense argued the meat tenderizer was an example of the compassion Wright felt for Klara; in that he was trying to knock her unconscious before killing her to limit her pain. 

However, Sonneman retorted by saying Wright’s own statements indicated he only stunned Klara with the meat tenderizer, and she was still conscious when he stabbed her twice. That brutality, the prosecution argued, indicated Wright wasn’t acting out of love for Klara as he had claimed. 

Regardless of her dementia, Klara’s life still had value, Sonneman said. She quoted from a letter authored by Friendship Center Director Malia Fox for the case where Fox outlined the programs available to help Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. In Winona County alone, about 1,350 people have Alzheimer’s disease, Fox wrote. 

In victim impact statements, Klara’s children from a previous marriage excoriated Wright. Her son said he was disgusted by Wright’s “old man routine” and her daughter said that if she got five minutes alone with Wright, she would do the same to him that he had done to Klara. 

Judge Leahy sided with the prosecution when she said Wright had failed in his marriage vows to protect and love Klara both in sickness and in health. Although admittedly Wright found himself in a complex situation, she said, it would have been uncomplicated to pick up a phone and ask for help. “You had multiple options,” Leahy told Wright. 

Leahy sentenced Wright to the entire prison term outlined in the plea deal. She did, however, waive the $7,500 the prosecution had been seeking as restitution for Klara’s funeral costs, on the basis that Wright is indigent. 

Local@winonapost.com