State Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood) deliberately misled voters and broke the law when he took steps to run for an Inglewood-area seat several years ago, a Los Angeles County prosecutor said Thursday during opening statements in Wright's perjury and voter fraud trial.
But Wright's lead defense attorney said the veteran lawmaker acted properly and was the victim of a "murky" law governing residency rules for candidates and office holders.
More than three years after his September 2010 indictment on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud, Wright faced a nine-woman, three-man jury in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom.
Before the proceedings began, Wright's attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said outside the courtroom that his client will testify in the case, which could take two to three weeks. Prosecutors, McKesson said, were "trying to make somebody a convicted felon for the most minor" of matters.
Wright voiced a similar sentiment to a reporter while waiting for the judge to start the session, saying, given all the serious crime occurring, it was "hard for me to believe" that he was in court on this matter.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bjorn Dodd told the jury he will show that Wright committed perjury and later voted illegally by making it appear that he lived in one place -- and was therefore eligible to run for office and vote in what was then the 25th State Senate District -- when he really lived in a neighboring district. (State law requires that candidates live in the districts they seek to represent.)
The prosecution's case, which the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said grew out of a tip to its public integrity division around the time Wright won the seat in 2008, centers on two residences.
There is the modest five-unit Inglewood apartment complex that Wright has owned since 1977, and which he claimed as his address when running, starting in 2007, and from which he voted. And there is the upscale single-family home in Baldwin Hills that he bought in 2000 and which the prosecution alleges was his true home.
Dodd showed the jury photos of the Inglewood and Baldwin Hills properties, taken on the day in 2009 that investigators searched both premises. They showed exterior and interior shots of the homes and their contents, which included few of the senator's personal effects in Inglewood and three luxury cars, full closets and memorabilia in Baldwin Hills.
Witnesses in both neighborhoods will testify that they saw Wright frequently at the Baldwin Hills home, but not much at the Inglewood home, the back house on the property.
"It didn't appear [to Inglewood tenants] that he really lived there ... or spent any real time there," Dodd said.
A key witness in the case is expected to be the woman who lived in the back house for many years with Wright's father and who continued to rent the place from Wright after his father's death. Wright made an agreement with her in 2007 to occupy part of the back house in exchange for a break in her rent.
McKesson said Wright, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, bought the Baldwin Hills house as an investment and never intended to make it his legal residence. Wright did not claim a property tax exemption available for owner-occupied homes and used the top floor as an office for his real estate investment business so he wouldn't be using state-provided facilities for private use, McKesson said.
He also questioned the district attorney's motives because the office waited until after Wright was in office to investigate him when the residency issues first surfaced in a May 2008 Los Angeles Times article about Wright's primary contest with former Rep. Mervyn Dymally, who also was alleged by some to live outside the district.
"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.
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