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Wilbanks sentenced to death for 2013 shooting

After more than four hours of deliberation, a 12-member jury has sentenced Steven Matthew “Matt” Wilbanks to the death penalty for shooting and killing Ole Miss graduate student Zacharias Hercules McClendon in 2013.

The jury started deliberations on Thursday at about 9 a.m. and returned the sentencing verdict at about 1:20 p.m.

On Tuesday, the jury found Wilbanks guilty of capital murder after one day of testimony from witnesses for the prosecution. Wilbanks attorneys did not put anyone on the stand.

Wilbanks admitted his guilt to law enforcement during an interview in December 2013; however, he decided to continue with a trial rather than change his plea and move directly to the sentencing phase.

Wilbanks showed little emotion as the verdict for the death penalty was read in court.

The murder took place on Dec. 17, 2013, in McClendon’s apartment at 20B County Road 140 just off of College Hill Road in Oxford.

According to the state, Wilbanks, 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.

His body was found by Lafayette County Sheriff’s Deputy Will Tidwell at 3:30 a.m. on Dec. 18, 2013, after McClendon’s mother, Paula, called the sheriff’s department and requested someone check on her son after he didn’t arrive at his home in Gulfport. McClendon was expected to arrive home for the holidays on Dec. 17.

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.

Boone and Lyons previously pleaded guilty in exchange to have the death penalty taken off the table and are both serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Wilbanks was not offered a plea deal.

Jury selection was held on Monday and the trial began and ended Tuesday with the jury finding Wilbanks guilty after deliberating for about two hours.

Law enforcement officials recounted the crime, but it was Wilbanks own testimony via a taped interview hours following the shooting that cinched the verdict.

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.

“I’m sorry I lied to you yesterday,” Wilbanks told the investigators in the recording. “But now you got me, I’m telling you everything.”

Wilbanks told investigators that the shotgun belonged to him and that he purchased it for $8 at a gun show in Hattiesburg where he lived before moving to Oxford.

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 stole McClendon’s vehicle, which was found a few hours after the shooting, parked at the Chevron gas station on Highway 6. The car wouldn’t start, so the three drove Boone’s car to Walmart to buy a battery and to purchase items for their getaway trip. However, before they could return, the police had located the vehicle.

On Wednesday, three ministers who visit with Wilbanks once a week on different days testified that Wilbanks was now “saved” and held Bible studies at the Lafayette County Detention Center where he has been held awaiting trial since his arrest in 2013.

Because Wilbanks was sentenced to the death penalty, an appeal will be automatically filed by the circuit court on his behalf.

District Attorney Ben Creekmore said his office never has an expectation of what a jury might decide but is thankful that the jurors carefully examined the evidence and collectively came to an agreement on the verdict of guilty and in handing down the sentence.

“We feel we put on the proof that would justify a death penalty verdict,” Creekmore said Thursday afternoon.

Creekmore said the conclusion of all three defendants’ trials is a “relief” to McClendon’s parents, Percy and Paula McClendon.

“We will continue to cherish the memory of Zach and forget the horrible way that he was treated by these men,” Creekmore said. “Zach was a bright, young man who loved life and was a neighbor to everyone he met.”

McClendon, a first-year graduate student from Gulfport, was pursuing a Master’s of Business Administration at Ole Miss. Prior to attending Ole Miss, McClendon graduated from Williams College in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

He was an apprentice for an orthopedic surgeon at Tulane University while in college.