UPDATE 6:11 p.m. – A Lee County Jury has reached a verdict in the sentencing phase for convicted cop killer Grady Wilkes. Wilkes has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty citing what they say is Wilkes’ deliberate creation of deadly risk and the brutal nature of Auburn officer William Buechner’s death.
Wilkes’ defense argued for his life, saying he has no major prior criminal history and has mental defects. There is no judicial override, so the jury’s decision is final.
OPELIKA, Ala. (WRBL) – The Auburn man convicted of killing Auburn police officer Will Buechner in 2019 awaits his fate: death or life in prison will be decided by the same jury who found him guilty. Alabama law requires a 10/12 juror vote for the death penalty; judicial override is gone. What the jury says goes. On Thursday both prosecutors and defense rested their cases in the sentencing phase of the trial. The jury is expected to begin their deliberations soon.
It’s a rare occurrence for a Lee County jury to sentence death. Speaking to court officials the last time a jury recommended death was believed to be when Opelika Officer Roger Motley was killed in 1993 by Linda Block and George Sibley. Block was executed via electric chair. George Sibley was executed years later by lethal injection.
Buechner’s loved ones including his sister, parents, and widow shared their pain with the jury through their victim impacts. Sara Buechner’s statement from the stand laid bare the agony of losing, then enduring life without her husband and children’s father. Buechner was a loving husband and a father of two, his sin Henry and the step-daughter he adored,McKenna. Buechner served as an Auburn Police Officer for 13 years. He also found a brotherhood within the Gunners Motorcycle Club.
Prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty due to their allegations of Wilkes’ deliberate creation of deadly risk, obstructing lawful arrest, disrupting government function, and the brutal nature of Buechner’s death – the officer was briefly conscious after he was shot- and knew he would die.
Killer Grady Wayne Wilkes, sat motionless in court, faced impact statements as his defense fought for his life using such mitigating factors as no major prior criminal history, alleged mental defects, intoxication during the shooting, family history of mental illness, and supportive character witnesses.
In May of 2019, Auburn officers responded to a distress call from a female victim after Wilkes, her boyfriend and the father of her child, choked and threatened to kill her. Offices arrived are were taking the female back to the mobile home to get a suitcase so she could leave for the night. When officers knocked on the door of the couple’s home, Wilkes answered wearing his National Guard body armor, including a body shield, helmet, loaded semi-automatic rifle fitted with a laser sight, four loaded magazines, and a Glock. Officers Buechner, Webb Sistrunk, and Evan Elliott were struck by the gunfire. Officer Ron Askelson escaped without injury.
Describing the severity of the situation, Jessica Ventiere, the Lee County District Attorney, emphasized in her closing remarks, “They are running away before he even fires the first shot. He intended to kill every single living soul that was on that porch.”
Officer Buechner was hit twice, with bullets severing his spine and puncturing his lungs. The courtroom listened to Buechner’s final words, captured by his body camera, as he struggled for breath, whispering, “Lord, please help me” before succumbing to his injuries.
The defense contended Wilkes was experiencing a psychotic break, precipitated by a fight with his girlfriend and fear she would take their child away from him. According to the defense, Wilkes had armed himself as a means of self-soothing and not to harm the officers.
“This isn’t a person that laid in wait for the police to show up. He didn’t plan for battle with the police,” argued defense attorney William Whatley.
The jury didn’t buy his defense and agreed with prosecutors who asserted Wilkes had indeed premeditated his actions. Ventiere emphasized, “He was mad, and he was going to prove he was in power not scared Lil’ Wayne. Not poor, unsafe Wayne. But powerful Wayne; that’s what he wanted to show.”
The defense contends Wilkes was unaware of Buechner’s presence and did not realize Buechner had been shot until officers informed him afterward. However, the prosecution introduced body camera footage seemingly contradicting this claim, showing a green laser sight from Wilkes’ rifle trained on Buechner just before the shots were fired.
WRBL will keep you updated.