SAN ANTONIO – A botched investigation in 2019 by the San Antonio Police Department led to a Black man being wrongfully charged with felony family violence, according to attorneys for the man and case records obtained by the KSAT 12 Defenders.
Michael Wright, 34, was indicted in the summer of 2019 for felony strangulation of a family member, a crime he did not commit.
The formal charge came months after SAPD officers investigated a domestic violence incident between a woman and her boyfriend, another man named Michael Wright, 38, at a home near Woodlawn Lake. The two Michael Wrights have no relation.
Prosecutors dismissed the charge against the younger Wright in October 2019, admitting on the case dismissal documents that the “wrong Michael Wright was arrested.”
A civil rights attorney representing the now-cleared Wright said he is currently in negotiations with the city’s Office of Risk Management on a possible out-of-court settlement, but that a federal lawsuit is likely to be filed since negotiations have not progressed.
“So in my opinion the blame lies mutually with the district attorney’s office as well as the city. There should be policies in place for these kinds of things to get caught early on. And for whatever reason, they were not,” said Nathaniel Mack, Wright’s civil rights attorney, in an interview with the KSAT 12 Defenders. “Whether it was blatant discrimination or inexcusable incompetence, I don’t know, but we’re going to get down to the bottom of it and hold those people accountable and hopefully changes will be made.”
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales and SAPD Chief William McManus both declined to comment for this story and a police spokesperson said the department had no information to release on the case.
The younger Wright took steps to have the criminal charge expunged from his record, which means officials can no longer comment publicly on it and online records are limited.
City Attorney Andy Segovia this month confirmed the risk management office is in talks with a representative for Wright, before saying he had no other information on the case.
“I would definitely say the system is broken. It needs to reform. It needs retraining,” said the wrongfully charged Wright.
Where did SAPD go wrong?
Even though SAPD officers initially took custody of the correct suspect, an officer pulled up the wrong birthdate at the scene and that led to other errors that were never caught by investigators.
The incident began when SAPD officers dispatched to the 3000 block of W. Ashby Place on March 16, 2019, found a distraught woman sitting in a car with a friend.
The woman told officers her boyfriend, who was now sleeping inside, had picked her off the ground by her throat and then thrown her onto a bed after the couple had returned home from a nightclub where the man worked security.
The alleged victim said the suspect, Michael Wright, had accused her of touching another man at the club and that the argument escalated once they returned home.
Body-worn camera footage shows officers enter the home and wake up Wright, who is sleeping sideways across the bed with his feet on the ground.
The footage also shows signs of a struggle, including curtains that had been knocked down from a bedroom window.
After Wright is woken up, he is detained in handcuffs and taken outside, the footage shows.
Dispatcher notes for the call included Wright’s correct birth month and day: October 15.
When one of the responding officers attempts to search for him on his in-vehicle police computer, however, the officer pulls up a Michael Wright with a birthdate of October 24, 1986.
The younger Wright’s birthdate — instead of the suspect’s birthdate of October 15, 1982 — is what was later included in SAPD’s charge and disposition report for the case, records show.
The blunder continued despite the older Wright confirming to SAPD Detective Reynaldo Montes while being interrogated that he was 36 years old, making him four years older than the person listed on the report.
The older Wright was interrogated and then released without being criminally charged.
The signed report forwarded to the district attorney’s office, which listed Montes as investigator and SAPD Sgt. James Cline as approving authority, included the younger Wright’s state identification number and photo, two more errors.
“It hurt a lot.”
The younger Michael Wright, who works in information technology, said his mother called him in the summer of 2019 and informed him that a fugitive apprehension team was looking for him.
After the officers visited his mother’s home a second time, Wright called the department and asked what was going on.
“They told me it was a domestic abuse charge, a felony,” said Wright.
He hired a criminal defense attorney, Shannon Locke, after being told that he had been indicted and needed to turn himself in.
“[Wright and his family] were absolutely adamant that Michael couldn’t possibly be the accurate subject of the warrant,” said Locke.
Wright, a military veteran, said he made arrangements to turn himself in at the satellite bond office in the basement of the Bexar County Courthouse.
Wright, believing that he would be able to quickly address the mix-up, brought along his family.
Instead, it turned into one of the most traumatic moments of his life.
“I still had to be shackled up and walked down the prison basement, from wrist to ankle. In front of my kids, my brother, sister and my dad,” said Wright. “I served my country, did it for eight years. And for something like this to happen to me. It’s just incredible. It hurt a lot. Just, just seeing my son’s face, my kids crying,” added Wright.
As part of his pretrial release conditions, he was required to take multiple domestic abuse classes.
“With Mike, it was a seismic event. He is somebody that trusts in the law. He believes that police officers are there to protect him. He believes he can rely on the fundamental tenets of our society,” said Locke.
After Wright was booked, Locke was able to get access from the DA’s office to case records, including the body camera footage.
What it showed was a suspect who is more than a half-foot taller, nearly 100 pounds heavier than the younger Wright and with long hair.
The assistant district attorney assigned to Wright’s case, Doug Campbell, told the Defenders earlier this month he moved quickly to dismiss the case once he learned the wrong person had been indicted.
Campbell, who said he left the DA’s office at the end of 2019 to go back into private practice, claims that prosecutors typically rely on the information that has been compiled and turned over by the investigative agency.
Locke pointed out that the mix-up could have been avoided at any point prior to a warrant being issued for his client’s arrest, if anyone involved in the investigation had simply shown the alleged victim a picture of who they were building their case against.
“If a dentist is going to get arrested or if a pediatrician is going to get arrested, there is this idea that if they make that arrest, they’re going to ruin this person’s life, so let’s be sure. Michael deserved that. He didn’t get it,” said Locke.
Wright said at no point did anyone from the police department or DA’s office offer so much as an apology.
The innocent Wright said the false arrest has had a dramatic impact on his personal life and caused him to miss out on multiple advancements in his IT career.
“I’d make it to a lot of last rounds of interviews and then find out that I’m not selected because I had a felony charge on my background check,” said Wright.
“They actually indicted that photo, not the person who was being interviewed,” said Locke, summing up how the investigation went wrong.
The actual Michael Wright accused of felony strangulation was indicted in July 2020, court records show.
Wright was booked in late October and is currently free on bond awaiting trial.
Not the first time
Locke also represents the suspect San Antonio police were actually looking for in August, when they handcuffed and then arrested a Black jogger they believed matched the man’s description.
The jogger, Mathias Ometu, was charged with two felony counts of assaulting a peace officer and spent two days in jail before his case was dismissed.
After the charges were dropped, McManus publicly defended the actions of the arresting officers, claiming in a statement that “they were only doing their jobs.”
Ometu’s attorneys at the time said McManus should retract the statement and “own up” to what happened.
“If you are going to be making these mistakes, there needs to be consequences. And frankly, Chief McManus needs to look at why this happens to Black people in San Antonio,” said Locke.
In December, KSAT interviewed a San Antonio man named Eduardo Lopez who was wrongfully accused in a felony hit-and-run case.
Lopez was arrested, booked and said he spent all of the money set aside to buy his family Christmas gifts to help pay his bail.
A detective later told Lopez the actual suspect in the crash had the same name and a similar physical description.
After KSAT aired Lopez’s story, McManus showed up at this home, apologized and gave him a check for $700.
SAPD officials last week confirmed all leads have been exhausted without any more arrests being made in that case.
It does not appear, meanwhile, that Montes or Cline were ever punished publicly for the gaffes in the Wright case.
A review of agendas for the city’s Fire Fighters’ and Police Officers’ Civil Service Commission shows that neither Montes or Cline has been suspended since March 2019, when the domestic violence incident took place.
Suspensions for police officers of one day or longer are public record in Texas, meaning if either of the officers were disciplined, it did not rise above a written reprimand or verbal counseling.
“This is an important event. And it’s an event, whoever we are arresting, we are going to change their lives. And if it’s the wrong person, we need to make 100 percent sure we are getting the right person. And I think SAPD is bad at doing that. And I think SAPD needs to ask themselves why they are bad at doing that,” said Locke.