Wilbanks found guilty of capital murder in 2013 shooting of Ole Miss student
Published 5:52 pm Tuesday, February 13, 2018
The man who pulled the trigger that claimed the life of Ole Miss graduate student Zacharias Hercules McClendon in 2013 was found guilty of capital murder Tuesday by a 12-member jury at the Lafayette County Courthouse.
The one-day trial started Monday with jury selection and reconvened Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. with McClendon’s mother, Paula McClendon, being the first to take the stand for the prosecution.
She testified that Steven “Matt” Wilbanks had eaten breakfast with her and McClendon a few weeks before he shot and killed her son.
“He was walking by the apartment and Zach invited him in to eat,” she said in court. “He was a very friendly person.”
The murder took place on Dec. 18, 2013, in McClendon’s apartment at 20B County Road 140 just off of College Hill Road in Oxford. According to the state, Wilbanks, along with Joseph Lyons and Derrick Boone, entered McClendon’s apartment and Wilbanks shot him in the back of the head with a 16-gauge shotgun while McClendon was doing dishes.
According to testimony given by several law enforcement officers from the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department, after Wilbanks shot McClendon, the three men stole his 2004 Nissan along with clothing, electronics and textbooks.
Lafayette County Sheriff Deputy Will Tidwell was the first to discover McClendon’s body after responding to a welfare check from McClendon’s family after he failed to arrive home on the 18th as expected.
“I said, ‘Oh (expletive) he’s been shot,’ and then I alerted the other deputies,” Tidwell said at the trial.
Deputy Chief Scott Mills told the court that Wilbanks and Boone arrived back at their apartment, adjacent to McClendon’s, shortly after deputies discovered McClendon’s body.
“They let us search their apartment and were very cooperative,” Mills said. “They said they were wanting to leave to go to North Carolina for the holidays but agreed to stay and help us.”
It was after receiving a call from the Oxford Police Department that Wilbanks and the other two men became suspects.
OPD Maj. Jeff McCutchen said McClendon’s vehicle was found abandoned at a gas station and security video footage showed Wilbanks and Boone in McClendon’s car which had broken down.
“I went to the scene of the shooting and told the investigators that the two men at the scene, Wilbanks and Boone, looked like the two men I saw in the video,” McCutchen said.
Later in the trial, it was explained Lyons was hiding in the apartment when law enforcement searched it but escaped out of a bedroom window with the gun used to kill McClendon and tossed it onto a nearby embankment.
The audio recording of Wilbanks’ interview with law enforcement on Dec. 18, 2013, was the last evidence to be presented to the jury by prosecutors.
“I shot him in the back of the head and I extremely regret it, which goes without saying. Well. maybe not because I’m sure there’re some people who do (expletive) up things and don’t feel regret it, but I do,” Wilbanks said on the recording.
Wilbanks admitted to shooting McClendon and that Lyons and Boone knew he was going to shoot him and “were OK with it.” The three men then divvied up the items they stole from McClendon.
Wilbanks told investigators that the shotgun belonged to him.
“I bought it at a gun show in Hattiesburg for $8,” Wilbanks said.
Wilbanks said the plan was to kill McClendon so they could steal his money, credit cards and other belongings. He said he needed money for rent and bills but then later told investigators he had thought about killing “someone” a year before shooting McClendon.
Wilbanks testified that the three men walked over to McClendon’s apartment and that he set the shotgun down outside McClendon’s door. After talking to McClendon for about 45 minutes, Wilbanks said Lyons went outside and brought the gun inside and handed it to Wilbanks, who then shot McClendon in the back of the head.
“He never saw it coming,” Wilbanks said. “I didn’t want him to suffer. I’m not bloodthirsty or anything.”
The three men went to Walmart after the shooting to purchase items for their getaway trip and electronics they intended to later return for cash. However, they had planned on getting away in McClendon’s vehicle, which was not running.
“The car breaking down is why we’re not in Austin, Texas or Memphis right now,” Wilbanks said in his interview. “It wasn’t a bad scheme if you set aside killing someone. I immediately regretted it though, as soon as I did it. It’s hard killing someone.”
In the audio recording, Wilbanks said he dreaded facing McClendon’s parents who would likely want to “see him in the chair” and asked if he could be sent to a prison “somewhere warm” and asked if there were pillows in prison.
The state rested their case at about 4 p.m. Defense attorneys, Josh Turner and Kelsey Rushings did not put anyone on the stand to testify during the trial. Wilbanks did not testify on his own behalf.
Defense attorneys argued in the opening and closing statements that while Wilbanks might have pulled the trigger, he didn’t act alone. They said Wilbanks was cooperative with investigators and everything he told them matched the evidence and that Wilbanks took full responsibilities for his actions.
The state agreed to not seek the death penalty for Lyons and Boone if the two men both pleaded guilty. Lyons was sentenced to life in prison in 2016 and Boone was sentenced to life in prison in early 2017.
However, the state did not offer the same plea deal to Wilbanks.
The trial now moves into the sentencing phase where the defense is expected to show mitigating factors for Wilbank’s actions in hopes of avoiding a death sentence.
Court will reconvene at 9 a.m. Wednesday for the start of sentencing.