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Wright's own words seal his fate; Statements To Cops Key In Verdict <br> Guilt found on all 10 counts in grisly abuse of half sister

Luke J. Wright never took the witness stand to tell jurors his side of what happened on the day his half sister's badly scalded body was found in the bathroom of their North Collins apartment Jan. 21, 2010.

His fate at trial, nonetheless, hinged on his own words.

Wright had given copious statements to police -- seven in all -- one after the other revealing more agonizing details about abuse inflicted on his mentally challenged half sister, Laura Cummings.

Wright's attorney, John R. Nuchereno, tried to sway jurors by suggesting that his client falsely confessed and calling into question the manner in which the statements were developed.

He also mounted an "affirmative defense" in which Erie County Court jurors were asked to consider whether Wright, 32, was not criminally responsible for his actions because of a mental defect.

But in the end, jurors looked past that defense and in less than fours delivered a guilty verdict on all 10 felony counts, which will likely lead to Wright spending the rest of his life in prison.

"He knew what he had done," said juror Sandra A. Fulton of West Seneca.

Early in deliberations that began at about 11:20 a.m., the jury was nearly unanimous in its thinking, with one juror on the fence, Fulton said.

But that juror came around quickly to a guilty verdict after reviewing the police statements and some other testimony, she added. Nuchereno's efforts to portray his client as so mentally challenged that he didn't understand his actions hadn't planted the seed of reasonable doubt that Wright needed.

"We didn't think so, because of all the seven reports [Wright] gave to police. It was just overwhelming what he had done," she said.

At least one of the jurors wept during the reading of the verdict, which followed days of graphic and disturbing testimony about the torture and death of Laura Cummings, 23, inside her Sherman Avenue home.

Prosecutor Kristin A. St. Mary said afterward that she was overcome with emotion and also welled up as the verdict was read.

Prosecuting attorneys are in their line of work to speak up for victims of crime who can't speak for themselves, said St. Mary, who teamed with Thomas M. Finnerty during the trial.

"This is the first time Laura had a chance to tell her story -- and we were honored to do that," she said.

Wright's expression didn't change as the jury forewoman answered each of the 10 counts with "Guilty."

When asked what Wright said to him after the verdict, Nuchereno replied that his client simply said, "Thank you."

"He has no idea of the situation. He has no idea what the verdict means," Nuchereno said. "If the jury were to have said not guilty 10 times, he would have had the same reaction."

Wright's sentencing is scheduled for May 24, and he could face a sentence of more than 127 years in state prison -- more time than even his mother, Eva M. Cummings, received for abusing and suffocating Laura Cummings.

Finnerty and Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III praised Erie County sheriff's detectives for their restraint and patience in listening to Wright chronicle his crimes in disgusting detail.

"Without his statements, without his words," said Finnerty, "there wouldn't be a case."

The detectives, he added, felt that they "owed it to Laura to find out what happened to her," he said. "They had to keep listening because he was their source of information."

Finnerty, too, struggled to stay composed at one point in his closing argument Tuesday. And while meeting with reporters Wednesday, he choked up again as he recalled his initial encounter with the Laura Cummings investigation back in January 2010.

"I got about halfway through the second statement, and I had to get up and close the door to my office, and I just started to cry," said Finnerty, fighting back more tears.

Fulton, the juror, said she thought she might not be able to sit through the entire trial, particularly after viewing horrendous pictures of the scalding that Laura Cummings endured to her face.

The graphic nature of some of the evidence was one of the reasons Senior Erie County Judge Michael L. D'Amico kept four alternate jurors -- in case some people couldn't continue.

But Fulton said she felt a duty to complete the job.

"You think about that girl and what she went through, and it's something that had to be done," she said. "It's something you'll never forget. I'm glad it's over."

Nuchereno never seriously considered letting Wright testify on his own behalf to counter those statements or to try to convince jurors that he shouldn't be there in the first place.

"You couldn't put Luke Wright on the stand. He wouldn't know what he was doing," the defense attorney said.

Instead, Nuchereno introduced expert testimony from forensic psychologist Charles P. Ewing, who interviewed Wright extensively. Ewing contended that Wright was incompetent to stand trial and incapable of providing a consistently accurate accounting of events in his life.

D'Amico spent about 90 minutes instructing the jury on how to weigh evidence in reaching their verdict.

Additionally, for any count in which they found Wright guilty, jurors were told they also had to consider the charge in light of the affirmative defense.

Nuchereno argued repeatedly at trial that Wright could not be held responsible for the crimes because his client is mentally retarded and suffers from traumatic brain injury and can't "appreciate the nature and consequences" of the acts and the wrongfulness of them.

Thus, when jurors decided that Wright did "beyond a reasonable doubt" scald his sister, they also had to determine whether the defense proved that Wright wasn't criminally responsible for that scalding because he didn't understand what he was doing was wrong.

On each of the 10 counts -- which included rape, assault, sodomy, incest and unlawful imprisonment -- jurors found Wright guilty and rejected the affirmative defense.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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