UPDATE 6:11 p.m. – A Lee County Jury has reached a verdict in the sentencing of Grady Wilkes, who was convicted of killing an Auburn police office. Wilkes has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty citing what they said 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 the jury’s decision.
Prosecutors are pursuing the death penalty due to their allegations of Grady Wayne 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.
Alabama law requires a 10/12 juror vote for the death penalty; There is no judicial override.
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. Sara Buechner’s statement from the stand laid bare the agony of losing, then enduring, life without her husband and children’s father.
Buechner served as an Auburn Police Officer for 13 years. He also found a brotherhood within the Gunners Motorcycle Club.
Wilkes sat motionless in court, facing impact statements as his defense used mitigating factors to defend him, such 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 to take 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, said, “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.
“He was mad, and he was going to prove he was in power,” Ventiere said.
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.