The woman state Sen. Roderick D. Wright considers his stepmother on Friday testified in his perjury and voter fraud trial that she never saw him spend a night or cook a meal in the Inglewood home he claimed as his residence while he was running for office several years ago.
The prosecution called Wanda Sanders, 74 and in declining health, as a key witness in its case against Wright, who was indicted by a county grand jury on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud. Wright has pleaded not guilty.
FOR THE RECORD:
Roderick Wright trial: In the Jan. 11 LATExtra section, an article about testimony in the perjury and voter fraud trial of state Sen. Roderick D. Wright misspelled the last name of prosecutor Michele Gilmer as Gilmore.
Sanders for many years has rented a house at the back of a multi-unit apartment complex Wright has owned since 1977. She acknowledged during questioning from Deputy Dist. Atty. Michele Gilmore that Wright arranged to use her home's back bedroom as a "dwelling" in exchange for a break in her rent.
Shortly after that agreement, spelled out in a January 2007 letter from Wright to Sanders that has been entered as evidence, Wright registered to vote at the address and used it to file candidate papers for his successful 2008 campaign for the Senate seat of that property's district. He voted in several elections using that property as his address, prosecutors said.
They allege that Wright, a Democrat, had plotted to make it appear that he lived in one place — and therefore was eligible to run and vote in what was then the 25th state Senate District — when he actually lived in a neighboring district.
Wright's defense attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said during opening statements Thursday that the veteran lawmaker acted properly and was the victim of a "murky" law governing residency rules for candidates and officeholders.
State law requires that candidates live in the districts they seek to represent and that voters register and cast ballots only in the political jurisdictions where they live.
In his opening statement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Bjorn Dodd showed the jury photos of the property that includes the pleasant but modest home of Sanders, who lived in the house with Wright's father for several years until his 1991 death. Dodd also displayed shots of a well-appointed, single-family home in upscale Baldwin Hills that Wright bought in 2000 and that prosecutors allege was his true home.
The photos, taken in 2009 on the day investigators served search warrants on both places, showed few of the senator's personal effects in the Inglewood house but full closets, memorabilia and three luxury cars at the Baldwin Hills address.
Witnesses will testify they saw Wright frequently at the Baldwin Hills house but not often at the Inglewood home, Dodd said.
"It didn't appear [to Inglewood tenants] that he really lived there … or spent any real time there," Dodd said.
McKesson said Wright bought the Baldwin Hills house as an investment and never intended to use it as his legal residence. Wright did not claim a property tax exemption available for owner-occupied homes, McKesson said, and he dedicated the top floor as an office for his real estate investment business so he wouldn't be using state-provided facilities for it.
"Sometimes the law gets murky," McKesson said, adding that Wright had taken every step he thought was required to run.
Much of the case is expected to hinge on the distinction between a "domicile" and a "residence," both sides indicated.
On Friday all eyes were on Sanders, who spent the afternoon on the witness stand.
Looking tired, Sanders paused for long periods before answering questions and often responded, "I don't remember."
At several points, Gilmore had Sanders read testimony she had delivered under oath to the grand jury, before an indictment was delivered in September 2010, while the lawyer Wright had retained for her watched from a courtroom spectator seat. Sanders answered "Yes" when asked if she recalled what she had previously said.
Sanders, who said she considered Wright her "friend and stepson" as well as her landlord, also acknowledged she occasionally allowed a friend of hers to use the bedroom set aside for Wright.
The witness said she did not question Wright about why he wanted the space in her house, noting that it was his property and she felt he could do with it what he liked.
When Gilmore asked her if she had ever seen him spend a night in the house or use the kitchen to prepare a meal, she answered "No."
Under questioning from McKesson, Sanders said she had been out of town a lot during the first years of the agreement and that Wright might have stayed at the house without her knowledge.
After a hard-fought primary, Wright, 61, a former assemblyman, went on to win the 2008 general election by a large margin in the strongly Democratic Senate district.
In 2012, he handily won a second four-year term.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times