Buckman found guilty of murder and other charges

Published 11:56 am Monday, October 23, 2023

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It took a Dare County Superior Court jury just two and a half hours Thursday to find Wisezah Datawn Buckman, 36, guilty of four counts of first-degree murder and 10 other felony charges for his part in a 2017 escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City.

During that escape attempt about a dozen state employees and inmates were hurt and four state prison employees were killed: correctional officers Veronica Darden, Wendy Shannon and Justin Smith and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe. It was the deadliest escape attempt in North Carolina history.

Buckman is one of four inmates with charges from that escape attempt. Mikel Edward Brady II was tried in 2019 and convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and other offenses for his part in the incident. Seth Frazier and Jonathan Monk have not been to trial yet.

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Buckman, who has appeared in court for each of the 13 trial days, did not testify in his defense nor make any comments other than in discussions with his defense lawyers.

His defense team of Christine Malumphy and Matthew Geoffrion from the Capital Defender Office in Durham, along with Raleigh attorney Raymond Tarleton, concluded their presentation of evidence a little before lunch and offered another motion to dismiss saying there was insufficient evidence, not all elements had been met, and Buckman had no active part in some of the assaults. It was one of almost 30 motions filed in the case since October 2.

In response, Assistant District Attorneys Alexis Massengill and Kim Pellini advised that Buckman was very much involved throughout the process, he was present in almost every scene, and acted in concert with others throughout the incident and during months of planning.

Judge Jerry Tillett denied the motion to dismiss and the trial moved one step closer to a conclusion. Following a lunch break, one juror was removed for cause and an alternate was moved into that seat as the court prepared for closing statements from defense and prosecution.

Geoffrion led off with closing statements for defense in which he painted a picture of a misguided Buckman who made a horrible choice just trying to get home to his family many hours away in Charlotte. Geoffrion said Buckman was not present for every event that took place and added it was Brady who did most of the damage.

Speaking for the state, Pellini reminded jurors that Buckman, who was already in prison for murder, confessed to officers that he was fed up with prison and the government and would do whatever it took to get out. That it was Buckman who handed a hammer to Brady that was used to slay prison officers. That Buckman knew the warehouse and brought that knowledge to the team. Pellini went on to say Buckman did more than tap Smith on the head with a ball pein hammer because Smith’s brain stem was almost severed. She concluded with a comment that Buckman and the others participated in a team effort and all were responsible.

Beginning deliberation a little after 4 p.m., the jury asked twice for clarification on legal wording and application.

Returning to the courtroom at 6:35 p.m., the jury confirmed that it found Buckman guilty of four counts of first degree murder, one count of attempted first degree murder, five counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious injury, and one count each of burn certain public buildings, felony inciting to riot, and escape from state prison.

One assault with a deadly weapon charge was dismissed by agreement.

The trial now moves to a sentencing phase in which the jury will decide on life in prison without parole or the death penalty.

First-degree murder is punishable by death in North Carolina, but death is not automatic. The law requires a number of complex legal steps be followed to reach that decision.

Court was scheduled to continue at 10 a.m. on Monday, October 23.