When American sailor Damon Crooks was killed on Argyle Street, police had a strong suspect but a weak case. Luckily for a city embarrassed by the murder, the suspect cooperated. Stephen Kimber finds out how pleading guilty became Corey Wright’s best move, right or wrong.
Corey Wright Photo essay by Aaron Fraser
My blood is my ink
My tears are my tales
I did a couple years in jail
But I shall prevail
He smiled. Big smile. “What you doing after?” It was nudging four in the morning on Saturday, November 4, 2006, closing time at Rain, the downtown Halifax nightclub where Corey Wright had spent his evening. He’d glimpsed her earlier. She served drinks in the bar. Hot. He’d made eye contact. Smiled. She’d smiled back. Now, he chatted her up. Got her name, her number.
“Got to clean up,” she told him.
“Do your thing,” he shrugged. But they agreed, in the way such things are agreed to, that he would wait outside for her.
He and two friends had spent the early evening hours at Wright’s apartment “chillin’, freestylin’” and drinking a six-pack of Corona, lubrication for their night ahead. At around midnight, they’d made their way downtown to Rain.
Wright had heard that Madd Links, the new host of Black Entertainment Television’s Rap City, and Big Apple, an American-based rapper, would be at the club tonight. He’d printed out a copy of his portfolio, grabbed a couple of his CDs—Vinny Deniroz was his rap name, Hali Hustler the name of his CD—and “got all dolled up and pretty.” Corey Wright was going to make it in the music business, and tonight would be his opportunity to start networking his way to the top.
The night had gone even better than he’d hoped. He’d handed Madd Links his card, inside-joked about the Rap City host’s perceived weaknesses—“How come you don’t rap in the booth?”—and engaged in some similarly familiar chit and chat with Big Apple.
“What you drinking?” he’d asked Apple at one point.
“I’m not a big drinker,” Apple replied.
Wright went over to the bartender anyway. “Send over a couple of drinks,” he said.
Before the two American rappers left for the night, Wright had even gotten a few pictures taken him of himself with them.
Which may explain why he hadn’t been paying attention to the booze-fueled storm brewing inside the club between some visiting American sailors and a group of local blacks, most of them guys Wright knew from the hood. When one of them, the half brother of a buddy, told Wright about a “nice chain” he’d seen around the neck of an American sailor—“I’m gonna take it”—Wright tried to discourage him. “Don’t do that man,” he said. “You got a nice chain too.”
Now, however, Wright spilled out onto Argyle Street and into the messy middle of the seething tension. To his right, familiar faces, friends; to his left, American sailors. Everyone was circling, puffed up, strutting, acting hard.
Wright looked around, then back up the stairs, saw the the woman coming down. “Fuck this,” he thought to himself, “I’m going with her.”
But just then, something happened—who knows what—and people started beating on each other. Someone punched Wright. He swung back. He hit some people, got swarmed. He kicked, punched, fought back. Someone pulled his shirt up over his head. He felt something cold against his skin—a blade! He knew what a knife felt like, knew what it meant. So he “spazzed,” swinging ever more wildly. Down, up, down again. Swallowed by the crowd. On his knees on the sidewalk at one point, he eyed the spoils of battle: scattered wallets, cell phones, watches, even a shoe that had come off in the melee. He grabbed what he could, shoved them in his pockets. Except the shoe. Who needs one shoe?
Finally, he saw his escape. A few of his buddies were inside a nearby car. He jumped in. His hand stung. He looked down. He was bleeding from where the knife had sliced him. Before he could stanch the bleeding, a patrol car pulled up behind them.
“Get out of here,” Wright shouted at the driver.
“No, man,” his friend replied. “We ain’t done nothing.”
Wright knew that wouldn’t matter. I know how it goes. Besides, he was on parole, less than two months away from the end, less than two months from freedom.
From off in the distance, he heard someone shouting, “My friend’s been stabbed…”
He opened the car door, jumped out, ran for it.
The murder of Damon Crooks—he’d been stabbed four times, including once through the heart—shocked and appalled Haligonians.
For starters, his killing was just the latest, worst example of the crazily escalating mindless mayhem plaguing downtown Halifax. In June, The Coast had published a cover story about what one criminologist called Halifax’s “dirty little secret,” the reality the city “had the highest violent crime rate among the 17 Canadian cities surveyed.” As if to drive the point home, in the week before the murder the press had reported that four more people had been assaulted in two separate attacks near Pizza Corner, the traditional final pit stop for local late-night bar-hoppers.
To make this murder more reprehensible, the victim, Damon Crooks, was not only a visitor to the city—a 28-year-old US navy Petty Officer 1st Class from the USS Doyle—but also the soon-to-be father of a baby girl.
Not surprisingly, the story of his death had media legs, not only in Canada but also in the United States as well.
As if to atone for the sins of its city, the Chronicle-Herald quickly set up a “Damon Crooks Family Fund” to raise money for the child’s upbringing. The fund would eventually raise $60,000.
In the legislature, opposition leader Darrell Dexter introduced a motion to express Nova Scotians’ “deepest condolences to the family and friends and shipmates of Damon Crooks… and urge that every step be taken to ensure the safe enjoyment of Nova Scotia port cities by the visitors that we welcome to our shores.” The resolution passed unanimously.
Not to be outdone, Halifax mayor Peter Kelly promised to set up what would become the much publicized Mayor’s Task Force on Violence in Halifax.
In death, Damon Crooks became larger-than-life. His shipmates claimed his only role in the brawl had been as unlucky good Samaritan—coming to the aid of a sailor friend whose necklace had been ripped from his neck.
“He was a great man, a great person,” his grieving fiancee told CTV News. “He’s really going to be missed.”
If this narrative now had its hero, it also needed a villain.
Corey Wright—initially charged with first degree murder—fit that role perfectly. He’d been arrested within minutes of the stabbing fleeing the scene of the crime. Damon Crooks’ wallet was in his pocket. And he had a history of knife violence.
In 2002, Wright had been convicted of aggravated assault in connection with the stabbing of a man and his girlfriend. Despite the prosecutor’s plea that Wright be locked up for 12 years, the judge sentenced him to just five and a half years, which—thanks to time credited for the period he’d spent in jail before his trial and a positive recommendation from the parole board—meant Wright was on the streets, on parole, when Crooks was murdered.
That, predictably, transformed Corey Wright—described as an “unpredictable psychopath” and a “knife-wielding maniac”—into the poster boy for a justice system run amuck.
“If [the judge] had listened to a crown attorney two-and-a-half years ago,” thundered David Rodenhiser in the Halifax Daily News, “Corey Wright would still be safely behind bars in a federal penitentiary and Damon Crooks might still be alive and looking forward to the birth of his first child.”
Rodenhiser’s guilty-as-charged diatribe —widely shared—came just three days after Damon Crooks’ murder, one day after Corey Wright’s arraignment, and years before the facts of the case against Wright could be argued in court!
Corey Wright was not without his supporters. During his second of many courtroom appearances, the court house filled with family and friends. Some handed out flyers showing a photo of “a beaming [Wright] with a toothy grin… cradling his newborn son” with the words: “Society Please Don’t Condemn A Man To Life Because Of His Past” and “Help An Innocent Black Man Accused By Halifax Police.” Others chanted, “Free Vinny D!” as sheriff’s deputies escorted the shackled Wright from the courtroom.
“He’s innocent,” a family member told reporters. “He said he didn’t do it.” Added a neighbour: “Corey is one of the sweetest guys I have ever known.”
I wouldn’t be this strong if it wasn’t for my moms
Discipline, dedication, determination and honour
This is what she taught me
Same for my stepfather
Corey Wright, named after his biological father, was born in Halifax on April 25, 1983, the middle of Valerie Wright’s three sons. His parents split when he was very young, and he never had a relationship with his father. He was raised instead by his mother. She calls him DeeWan.
“My mother was great,” Wright says from his prison cell today. “Growing up… I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
When he was 15, however, he got into “an altercation with my mother that changed my life.” It was, he admits now, a stupid teenager-thing. That morning, Corey was rushing around, late for school—“I had tests that day in math, in science, an essay due in English, and I always did things last minute”—when he saw his younger brother, Marvin, in the living room. Lounging around. Still in his pajamas.
“Get ready for school,” Corey ordered him.
“I’m not going,” Marvin replied.
“What do you mean, you’re not going?” One thing led to another and “I clipped him in the back of the head. He went all dramatic, crying to my mother and such.”
His mother admonished Corey not to hit his brother.
“Why do you worry about him?” Corey shot back. “You don’t worry about me.”
“As soon as I said it,” he says today, “I knew I was wrong. I hurt her feelings.”
Valerie lashed back, “slapping and hitting me” with little effect.
“I was smiling. I couldn’t help it,” Wright remembers. “But then she’s all, ‘Get out! Get out! Don’t come back!’”
Today, he shakes his head. “It was pride, stupid pride.” Corey stormed out, didn’t come back.
He ended up couch surfing. “I had three aunts and two best friends, so that was five couches and I just kept moving…” He stopped going to school. “I started smoking weed but I didn’t have any money.” One morning, one of his best friends showed up at the apartment where he was staying and began “to count his money. I figured he was selling weed, so I says, ‘Let me sell some too.’ And he says, ‘No, I don’t sell weed. I sell crack.’ And I thought, screw it, I’ll try it. I sold crack so I could smoke weed.”
He was 16.
Selling crack cocaine wasn’t just illegal; it was dangerous.
One night in July 2000, one of his best friends, Tyrone Oliver, who’d also allegedly been selling drugs, was gunned down on an outdoor basketball court. After that, Wright, in the words of his parole officer, would “drink the ‘hard stuff’ and continue to ingest alcohol until he could not drink any more.”
He was scared, but he wasn’t about to show it.
“I was always a fighter, you know, I was this skinny, short kid, but I loved to fight, especially the bigger guys who picked on the little kids or girls,” Wright says today. “When you’re a teenager, fighting is fun.” It’s less fun when others are carrying guns. “I’d never carry a gun,” Wright insists. “Guns make me nervous. But I got a knife. For protection.”
It was the knife that got him into trouble. In the early morning hours of April 20, 2002, he went to a birthday party at an after-hours spot on Gottingen Street, where he ended up dancing with a girl who turned out to be someone’s girlfriend.
“Why you hitting on my girlfriend?”
“I’m not hitting on your girlfriend.”
Words led to words, and the other guy went outside to get something from his car. “’Hold on,’ he said to me, ‘I’ll be right back.’” He returned moments later. “I’m trying to leave and he says, ‘I got something for you.’… I thought he had a gun. I panicked. I pulled out my knife and started swinging.” Wright stabbed the guy 14 times and, when the guy’s girlfriend tried to intervene, he cut her too. Today, he shakes his head. “He didn’t even have a gun on him.”
Wright pled guilty to the assault—“Your lordship,” he told the judge at his sentencing, “I acknowledge what I done wrong, and the weight of my sins is greater than I can bear”—and began, it seemed, to turn his life around.
But I’m gonna rise to the occasion
I’m driven by my ambition
While in jail, Wright earned his GED high school equivalency and enrolled in Second Chance, a one-year program to provide entrepreneurial skills to young people who’d been in “conflict with the law.”
Wright had already launched his own small business, opening up a north end storefront with his mother—with whom he’d reconciled—and one of his brothers. “We’d go out to Costco and buy in bulk—toothpaste, coffee, jerseys—and sell them in the neighbourhood” to people who couldn’t afford transportation to shop themselves.
He and a friend also got into the party promotion business. “We’d pay for the flyers—$40 for a thousand—and organize the shows. The club would get the bar; we’d get the door. We made a lot of money.” But then they got burned in a deal with a San Francisco promoter who was supposed to do in a show in Halifax and didn’t, and Wright and his partner “decided to go our separate ways.”
Wright’s separate way was to begin making his own music. When he was still selling crack, he remembers going to a house party and seeing some kids he’d grown up with performing, pretending to be the gangsters he actually was. “I saw these guys rapping what I’m doing, but they weren’t really doing it. They were going to school. They were good kids. So I thought, I’ll give rapping a try. At least I’m doing it.”
Wright ended up at Village Sound, Stephen Outhit’s north end recording studio. “He was an exceptionally talented rapper,” Outhit recalls, and he remembers being equally impressed by Wright the person. “He wasn’t a thuggy, peer-pressured kind of guy. He was a smart businessman who’d been born in an unfortunate situation.”
Outhit’s encouragement “put something in me,” Wright acknowledges. “I thought, this guy doesn’t know me and he’s saying I’m good. Maybe I can do this.” He made a CD, got a manager, made plans for a tour. “Two thousand and seven,” Wright says wistfully. “That year was going to be my dream, going to be all music for me.”
And then, on the morning of November 4, 2006, the dream became a nightmare.
Well at least my pain
Is more than a rhyme to me
How can I complain
When he’s doing more time than me
From the beginning, there were questions about what really happened outside Rain that night. Even about what had started it. A fight over a girl? A chain?
Although the circumstantial case against Corey Wright was compelling, even overwhelming—he was caught running for the crime scene with blood on his hand and the victim’s wallet in his possession—there was little hard evidence to connect him to the actual murder. It had happened in the confusing middle of a sprawling brawl involving, by some accounts, more than two dozen participants. Virtually every one of them—not to mention non-combatant witnesses—was intoxicated, their memories fogged, their evidence unreliable. Some, perhaps understandably, weren’t keen to talk to the police.
Within hours of the incident, however, a very different narrative began circulating in the black community. Someone else, also black, had murdered Damon Crooks—and bragged about it. The alleged killer had a well-known fetish for knives and for other people’s gold chains. The night before the murder, or so the story went, the man had stabbed someone else and taken his gold chain. Valerie Wright began compiling affidavits to show her son was not Crooks’ killer. It wasn’t easy. Everyone, it seemed, was scared of the other guy.
According to emails between the Crown lawyers and police, detectives knew soon after the murder that “someone else confessed to the murder to a third party.” What police did with that information isn’t clear.
They certainly had the information from several sources. The summer after the murder, for example, Stephen Outhit, the producer who’d befriended Corey, wrote to mayor Kelly expressing his concerns about delays in the case, as well as explaining that he’d been told that someone else—he named the individua—had allegedly confessed to the crime. Kelly wrote back, “essentially thanked me for my letter and said he’d forwarded it to the police,” Outhit explains. “The police never contacted me about it.”
He says he knows several other people contacted Crimestoppers with similar information, but were never contacted either.
The crown’s case against Corey Wright was no slam dunk. Within months, the crown had reduced his first degree murder charge to second degree, and eventually settled for manslaughter. Wright’s preliminary hearing, which had been scheduled to run for 20 days, lasted only five. The case had dragged on for close to a two and a half years when, in March 2009, on the edge of the beginning of his trial, Wright surprised everyone by changing his plea to guilty of manslaughter.
To understand just how big a surprise—not to mention relief—Wright’s plea must have been for prosecutors, it’s instructive to read Justice Felix Cacchione written judgment.
“Having reviewed the evidence in this case,” he noted at Wright’s sentencing hearing, addressing his comments to Crooks’ family, “I can say to you with certainty that this case was not an open and shut case of either murder or manslaughter. The crown acknowledged to me the difficulty that it would have in proving the charge as originally laid… It is very possible that a jury hearing the evidence that the prosecution had available to it could have decided that they either could not decide who did what and hence… been hung as a jury… Or the jury could in all likelihood have had a reasonable doubt that Mr. Wright was the offender who caused Damon Crooks’ death.”
The flimsiness of the crown’s case was not the only surprise on sentencing day. The crown and defence lawyers told the judge they’d agreed on a joint sentencing recommendation: 15 years for manslaughter.
In the complicated ways of the criminal justice system, that meant Wright typically would have been credited with double the time he’d already spent in jail while awaiting trial, reducing his actual sentence to 10 years. And—normally—he would have been entitled to apply for parole after serving just one-third of his sentence, meaning he would have been eligible to apply for parole after roughly three and a half years in prison.
Instead, Cacchione—“mindful of society’s abhorrence of what occurred and the prevalence of these types of activities in our community”—allowed Wright to claim just four years of remand time instead of five and ordered that “you serve at least half the sentence before you are considered eligible for parole. That means, sir, that on the 11-year sentence you will have to serve five-and-a-half years before you can even apply for parole.”
Lookin’ in the mirror
when I’m all by my lonesome
Pictures getting clearer
Play the cards that I’m holding
Pornographic magazine keeps me with a pin up
But it’s the pen and pad that keeps me with my chin up
Still unsigned so they think I’m a beginner
But it’s my inner that’s telling me I’m a winner
“Do you mind if I turn on the tape recorder?” I ask. We are sitting in a small windowless room inside the Springhill Institution, the prison where Corey Wright is serving his sentence. It’s the first time I’ve met Wright. But I’ve been following his story almost from the beginning.
As a columnist for the Daily News, I’d written about the media rush-to-judgment after it was revealed that Wright had been on parole at the time of Crooks’ killing. I’d spoken to Outhit, who believed an injustice might have been done, and to Valerie Wright, Corey’s mother, who was his number one and, seemingly, sometimes his only defender. I’d followed the case as it worked its way through the courts.
After Wright’s sentencing, we’d begun an email and letter correspondence. “I really want to share my story, the trials and tribulations I have gone through,” he wrote at one point. “I’ve done a lot of wrong things, but who hasn’t?… I always knew when I was doing wrong, but I am not and was never a bad person… Sorry for talking about my past,” he added, “but everyone new I meet I try to shed light on me as a person. Just because the newspapers and the media painted me out to be something I’m not. Well, anyway, we will talk soon, I hope.”
Now we sit, face to face, both eying the tape recorder between us. Wright is a handsome young man with an easy smile, the slight gap between his front teeth making him seem more boyish than his 26 years. The intelligence that’s obvious in his conversation serves as a counterpoint to the muscles he’s been building, lifting weights in prison, and to his tattoos: there’s one on the back of each hand containing the names of each of his two young sons and another on his shoulder that declares he is “My Brother’s Keeper.”
“It depends,” he says finally in response to my question about the tape recorder. “How honest do you want me to be?” We don’t turn on the tape recorder.
The issue, it turns out, is practical—as was his decision last spring to plead guilty to manslaughter. He hadn’t been impressed by the performance of his lawyer, Warren Zimmer, during the preliminary hearing. “He just took my case for the publicity,” Wright argues. “I’m at the police station [after his arrest] and a cop says to me, ‘You’ve got a call.’ It was Warren. He told me he was going to fight for me. I take people at their word. But we did the preliminary and he wasn’t fighting. Some days he wasn’t even there.”
Which is why, about a month before his trial was scheduled to begin, Wright asked to speak to Zimmer. He’d been thinking about his prospects in court and about what a long stretch in prison could mean to his dream of a music career. “I’ve got a bright future,” he tells me today. “I can feel it. I’m destined for something. Give me a pen and a roll of toilet paper and I can make rhymes… Doesn’t matter where I am. I can do time. But I can’t do forever…
“So I said to him, ‘Honestly Warren, this is my life. Be straight with me. What are my chances?’ And he says, ‘Well, it’s 50–50.’ So a coin toss is going to determine my life. I said, ‘Warren, go to them, get them to drop it to manslaughter…’ And that’s what happened.”
After he went to jail, Wright appealed Cacchione’s decision to reduce his remand credit and force him to serve more time before he would be eligible for parole. Just last month, the appeal court reversed those conditions. Which means Wright can now apply for parole in 2012 instead of 2014.
Which may be one more reason Corey Wright isn’t keen to go on the record, arguing he didn’t kill Damon Crooks. Call it the Donald Marshall, Jr., conundrum. Marshall famously spent 11 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, unable to get parole because he refused to admit his guilt, and therefore, according to the parole board, wasn’t ready to be rehabilitated.
Wright’s situation is different, of course. He did plead guilty to being responsible for Crooks’ death.
But did he really do it?
There are those who remain convinced Corey Wright is innocent.
While Wright answers most of my questions about the events of the night of November 4, 2006, he steers clear of the key question about whether he stabbed Crooks.
“I can’t talk about that,” he tells me.
It would be easy to take from that that Wright is guilty. But he is also—not to put too fine a point on it—someone who understands the justice system well enough to know guilt and innocence often matter less than luck and cunning.
Having been branded for a stabbing he admits he did commit, what were his chances of getting a jury’s benefit of the doubt if he was on trial for something he actually didn’t do? And, if he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison?
Corey Wright would rather not go there. He can do the time he’s been given.
He fills his days working on his rhymes. Whenever he has something ready, he sets up a phone call with James McQuaid, aka Homegrown, his Halifax-based producer. While Wright raps to the beat of an unrelated song playing from his CD player into his earphones, McQuaid records Wright’s voice over the telephone and later marries it to a beat in his studio.
Wright says his new music is very different from his earlier, more gangsta-inspired raps. “It’s like a different me,” he says. “It’s more party, more chill. I’m now more conscious, more motivational.”
Corey Wright still dreams. Destiny calls. We turn on the recorder. He raps:
You be waiting a long time
If you think I’m going to fade out
Not in this lifetime
Check my lifeline
Known for the gap in my teeth
And writing nice rhymes…
Corey Wright laughs, shows the gap in his teeth.
Stephen Kimber, The Coast’s Senior Features Writer, is the author of eight books. He teaches journalism at the University of King’s College.