Buckman trial now in defense portion

Published 3:01 pm Thursday, October 19, 2023

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During day 12 of the Wisezah Datawn Buckman murder trial, state attorneys Alexis Massengill and Kim Pellini concluded their presentation of prosecution evidence with almost two hours of previously recorded video testimony by Buckman.

Buckman sat quietly at the defense table while in the video, which was projected on a large screen in the Manteo courthouse, he was seen talking with North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agents Taylor Johnson and Randall Cox. Buckman provided a number of details about his participation in the October 12, 2017 failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City.

Buckman is on trial in Dare County Superior Court for his alleged part in that escape attempt with four other inmates that left four state employees dead and a dozen other state employees and inmates injured. It was the deadliest prison escape attempt in the history of North Carolina. His trial was transferred from Pasquotank County to Dare County in an effort to avoid possible jury bias.

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Killed during the escape attempt were correctional officers Veronica Darden, who was in charge of the sewing plant where the inmates worked, and Justin Smith. Correctional Officer Wendy Letitia Shannon died in a Virginia hospital later that month on October 30, and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe died from his injuries November 2, 2017.

One member of the group, Mikel Edward Brady II, was tried in 2019 and convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. The two other participants, Seth Frazier and Jonathan Monk, have yet to be tried.

In the video, recorded hours after the incident and running into the early hours of the following day, Buckman talks about being in prison on a 32-year sentence, feeling oppressed and wanting out to see his kids several hours away in Charlotte. He also lamented that they would be adults at the end of his sentence and he wanted to be part of their lives.

“I was going to do whatever it takes,” he is heard saying.

According to Buckman, the four had everything in common and they just came together and started talking with each other about an escape with no specific plan. Around July, three months before the escape attempt, as they talked a plan was formed among the four with no real designated leader. A Thursday was picked since that was trash day so they could get outside when less would be going on. Food items were stashed away since food would be needed and tools obtained. Part of the plan was to cut through fences and use a set of car keys from officer Darden, who was to be distracted or subdued, but there were no keys for a getaway vehicle.

When asked how they knew to start the escape attempt, Buckman said a little before 1 p.m., they just knew it was time to go.

He went on to say that in a storeroom, Monk and (Officer) Smith got into a tussle and time was ticking so he (Buckman) jumped in to help with a tap on head to knock the officer out. The video, however, shows Smith on the floor being hit repeatedly.

When questioned about that part of the incident, Buckman concluded it was not a regular hammer and might have been a ball pein hammer. He also admitted that he saw indentation in Smith’s head and that he may have suffered more than just a knockout blow.

As the quartet made their way to the loading dock and a potential break for freedom, Buckman said at least two of the four got into a tussle with an officer on loading dock. When asked about who did what to the officers they injured or killed, Buckman hesitated to name any names, saying repeatedly that he could not say. He explained also that he only saw blood outside the elevator – the site where Shannon and Howe were found – not in it.

Buckman went on to say he pushed a red cart out to the gate and where the fence was to be cut, but it was not cut. He did not know why. So as their plan unraveled, they tried to climb the fences as correctional officers surrounded them, telling them to give up because it was over.

“It crossed my mind to give up,” Buckman continued. “But I could not give up. I got to the top [of the first fence] but they pulled me down.”

During the video, Buckman said he did not know how the fire was set and didn’t know a fire was set until he heard on a radio out on the dock.

“The fire might have been a last minute thing,” he continued. “We knew we needed a diversion. One of us started it, but I don’t know who.”

Near the end of the video, he said he did not think anybody wanted to hurt Darden, it was not part of the plan but it just happened.

With state’s evidence concluded, defense attorney Matthew Geoffrion moved for a dismissal of all charges on the grounds that not all constitutional elements have been met. When pressed by Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett for specifics, Geoffrion recited each charge adding that there was no premeditation and no evidence that linked his client.

Massengill countered those claims saying that each participant acted in concert, meaning that all were guilty of each of the acts. She then reminded the court that defense attorney Christine Malumphy conceded during jury selection and in opening statements that her client was morally culpable, which means he is also legally responsible. She did, however, advise that the state would concede to one assault charge since there was no evidence presented.

The motions to dismiss were denied, and defense presented testimony from Jerry Byrum and Joseph Harrell, former assistant superintendent for programs at Pasquotank Correctional Institution, about weapons found, prison layout and missing documents related to Brady.

The defense team also introduced a transcript from the 2019 Brady trial of inmate Travis Kenton, who has since passed away. Kenton worked with officer George Midgett in the prison canteen and the two were on the loading dock when he saw blood on Brady and others. Thinking it was just colored dye, he asked Brady in jest, “Who did you kill?” Shortly after, Brady attacked officer Shannon. Fearing for his own safety, Kenton ran outside past Midgett and yelled for Midgett to run. When Kenton was led back inside the building he saw Midgett on the floor but the injuries were so bad and there was so much blood he did not recognize Midgett.

Court was scheduled to continue at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, October 19.