Otto Wright’s first trial for felony first-degree murder ended in a mistrial when a jury couldn’t come to a unanimous decision. But his second trial ended with a guilty verdict when the previously self-proclaimed “look out” admitted that he participated in the robbery of a West Palm Beach Chick-Fil-A restaurant.
Nicholas Megrath, the 18-year old manager of the restaurant that was located at the now non-operational West Palm Beach Mall was shot and killed by one of the other culprits. But Wright’s taped confession stated that although he watched the robbery unfold and was a part of it he didn’t fire the fatal gunshot. There was no physical evidence placing him at the scene but after a seven hour interrogation by police Wright confessed to the robbery naming two of his accomplices as Terrance Watson and Darrell Howard. Watson and Howard were never accused by police or charged with the crime. A little more than five-hundred dollars in total was stolen from the store.
Wright’s lawyer argued that the confession obtained by police was given under duress and they manipulated his client by lying to him when they told him that they had physical evidence implicating him which was found at the crime scene. They also played a good cop, bad cop routine by utilizing the help of an officer who knew Wright for many years and had previously assumed the role of a father figure to him in order to a coerce Wright into confessing to his role in the robbery.
But prior to Wright’s conviction and imposition of a life sentence, police believed they had two other suspects that they liked for the robbery/murder.
Marlon Johnson, also a Chick-Fil-A employee was the cop’s primary suspect after the crime was committed. A witness interviewed by police told them that Johnson told him that he participated in the crime. After spending a year in jail pending trial, the witness recanted his statement and Johnson was released from prison. But in addition to Johnson, law enforcement had another suspect on their radar. That man was Jesse Lee Miller Jr.
The murder itself was described as an execution style killing and quickly became a high-profile case. Megrath was found dead in an employee bathroom, shot in the back of the head with a single gunshot wound while he was bound to a chair with duct tape wrapped around his upper body as well as his mouth. His hands, arms, and legs were also held in place by the adhesive.
Miller was taken into custody one month after Wright’s arrest in September 2000 when during the investigation a ski mask was uncovered outside the Mall in a trash container. At the time, Detective Bill Fraser entered an affidavit into evidence that stated the saliva found inside the mask was a “100 percent match” to Miller’s DNA.
But extensive testing of the evidence showed that the DNA, although somewhat matching to that of Miller’s was far-off from the “100 percent match” as initially specified by Fraser. Final lab results demonstrated that the DNA that was present in the mask was a match to more than one out of every thousand Afro Americans, one out of every seven hundred Hispanics as well as one out of every twelve hundred Caucasians. Now, with the prosecution unable to make a conclusive case for the DNA evidence, charges were dropped in November 2001 after Miller spent 14 months in jail awaiting trial. When questioned about his affidavit Detective Fraser told jurors “I was incorrect, I thought I was right at the time but due to my ignorance with DNA I was incorrect.”
But police investigators and Fraser weren’t done with Miller.
Despite the inconclusive saliva being tossed as evidence, new information brought to light pressed a grand jury to produce a new indictment in July, 2007. The new indictment charged Miller with first-degree murder, armed robbery by use of a firearm, burglary charges with assault or battery while armed with that firearm as well as armed kidnapping.
In that trial which began in 2009 the jury was told that Miller had a grudge against Megrath for reporting him to the Chick-Fil-A’s owner for stealing, among presenting other evidence including the mentioning that more advanced forensic methods may still be able to link Miller to the ski mask. That trial ended in a hung jury.
Proceeding with a new trial, prosecutors were given another chance at Miller a few months later in that same year.
Among the new evidence provided by the prosecution was a hand written note with the combination to the Chick-Fil-A safe written on it. The yellow-lined notepad evidence clearly showed the characters and words “55, 65, 9, 10,” “4 time stop,” “left right left right”. A national handwriting expert from Memphis, Tennessee testified in court that the type of strokes made by the writing instrument definitively indicated it to be written by Jessie Miller. The forensic document inspector, Grant R. Sperry stated to the jury that “Mr. Miller is the writer,” of the note.
A secondary handwriting expert confirmed Sperry’s findings in court and told the jury that other examiners agreed that the note was likely written by the defendant. Finally, Miller was convicted being found guilty for the first-degree murder charge as well as, burglary, robbery and the kidnapping count.
Miller’s public defenders were granted an appeal to the ruling in 2012. The 4th District Court of Appeals threw out the conviction and ordered a new trial ruling that the reversal of the conviction was justified based on the Circuit Judge’s error of allowing improper testimony, specifically the bolstering of the handwriting experts testimony relating to the note allegedly written by the defendant. Additionally the earlier confession by Otto Wright posed a problem for the prosecution since Miller wasn’t named as an accomplice from a man who was already serving his sentence for the murder; at least partially based on his confession that named other individuals.
Miller’s final trial began in June of this year. By the end of the month he would no longer have to be defended in court. He was again tried on the first-degree murder charge but all other charges were dropped during the trial when one of his defense attorneys raised the issue that the state allowed the statute of limitations for all other charges to run out. The judge agreed. He also benefited from a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that decided that mandatory life sentences for juvenile offenders who are convicted of committing murder is unconstitutional. Miller was seventeen at the time the crime took place.
But all of that became a moot point after jurors deliberated for a little less than three hours at the conclusion of the three-week trial, unanimously finding Miller not guilty of first-degree murder. After three separate trials over a period of nearly fourteen years, Jesse Lee Miller Jr. walked out of the courtroom a free man. When questioned by reporters a jubilant Miller said “I’m free, y’know they had the wrong guy” and somberly mentioned that he didn’t know what to say to the family of Nicholas Megrath to comfort them; only that he knew nothing would bring their son back.
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