Buckman sentenced to death on three of four murder charges in connection with failed prison escape

Published 3:01 pm Sunday, November 5, 2023

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Deliberating almost five and a half hours, a Dare County jury recommended late Thursday that Wisezah Datawn Buckman be sentenced to death for his participation in the 2017 failed escape attempt at Pasquotank Correctional Institute in Elizabeth City.

That escape attempt by Buckman and three other inmates left four prison employees dead and about a dozen other state employees and inmates injured.

Buckman was convicted October 19 of his charges from that event: 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 assault with a deadly weapon, burn certain public buildings, felony inciting to riot, and escape from state prison.

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For most North Carolina offenses, a judge determines the defendant’s sentence. First degree murder requires a separate hearing with aggravating factors by the prosecution and mitigating factors from the defense for a jury to recommend one of only two choices: life imprisonment without parole or death. Decisions must be unanimous.

Taking time outs to clarify legal wording on the verdict sheet, to watch about 15 minutes of prison video showing parts of the escape attempt that was presented earlier in the trial, and a late lunch break, the jury of six women and four men reached a unanimous recommendation that Buckman be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the death of correctional officer Veronica Darden, and death for murders of correctional officers Wendy Shannon and Justin Smith and maintenance mechanic Geoffrey Howe.

Buckman sat quietly at the defense table with his legal team of Christine A. Malumphy, Matthew C. Geoffrion and Raymond Tarleton as Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett read the jury’s recommendation and then polled each member individually to confirm the recommendation of the jury was in fact their individual recommendation for each and every charge.

After thanking jurors for their service and releasing them from duty, Judge Tillett instructed Buckman to stand for sentencing.

Judge Tillett then sentenced Buckman to life imprisonment in the NC Department of Adult Correction without parole for the first degree murder of Veronica Darden and death to be executed by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety at a time and place designated by that agency for the first degree murders of Wendy Shannon, Justin Smith and Geoffrey Howe.

Consulting the structured sentencing chart, Judge Tillett sentenced Buckman for each of the five charges of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious injury to serve 146 to 188 months, burn certain public buildings 33 to 49 months, escape from state prison 20 to 33 months, felony inciting to riot 33 to 49 months, and attempted first degree murder of George Midgett 314 to 389 months. All are to run consecutively with life imprisonment.

As Buckman was escorted out of the courtroom by several Special Operation Response Team, members his defense team noted an appeal.

For his part in the escape, co-defendant Mikel Edward Brady II was found guilty of his murder charges in a 2019 trial and a jury sentenced him to death. Two other participants, Jonathan Monk and Seth Frazier, are still awaiting trial.

Even though capital punishment is a legal penalty in North Carolina, there have been no executions here since 2006.

Following Buckman’s departure Judge Tillett removed the stay on his contempt order for attorney Geoffrion and instructed the bailiff to take him into immediate custody. Geoffrion noted an appeal and asked for an appeal bond, which under North Carolina law must be by a superior court judge other than the superior court judge that imposed the confinement.

Court adjourned and several family members of the victims killed or injured in the 2017 escape attempt gathered outside the courtroom to console each other.

When asked for comments, Assistant District Attorneys Kim Pellini and Alexis Massengill advised they were unable to provide any post trial comments.

District attorney Jeff Cruden stated in a Friday press release: “There are no winners in this case. The families of the victims had to [relive] again the brutal slayings of their loved ones, but they have been resolute from the beginning to ensure that justice is served in each case. I am especially proud of my prosecution team, Assistant District [Attorneys] Kim Pellini and Alexis Massengill and Legal Assistant Hannah Gilroy. Their tireless effort, coupled with the exemplary work from the law enforcement community, ensured that the jury would have the information they needed to make this difficult decision. I commend the jurors for their willingness to serve and trust in the justice system to return the ultimate punishment for the murder of another human being.”