Part 3: Escalation
Most of the cases we explore in The Four Elements of Self-Defense are stories we have followed in the news. Stephen Maddox, however, is a CCW Safe member, and he asked us to tell his story so that others could learn from his case. In this article, we will explore how the concept of escalation affected the Maddox’s legal defense.
The conflict between Maddox and Wilkerson had been building for months. Once friends in the same motorcycle club, the two had a falling out, and they exchanged words on more than one occasion. Eventually, Wilkerson left the group, but he harbored some resentment towards Maddox over club disputes. It wasn’t until the night of a fundraising rally on October, 17, 2016, however, that the conflict turned physical.
North Carolina’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law makes a clear exception to the “no duty to retreat” clause: it doesn’t apply to the initial aggressor. Maddox claimed there were three confrontations that night, and in a court of law, it meant there were three opportunities to be the first aggressor, and three opportunities to retreat.
Regarding the first encounter in the bathroom, it is Wilkerson’s own wife’s testimony that shows he was the initial aggressor. She testified that around 9:15 that night, Maddox caught her husband’s eye. He made a move to follow Maddox into the restroom, and she grabbed him by the elbow. “Don’t do this,” she said. “Let this go.” But he went anyway. She testified, “You knew he wasn’t just going to the bathroom. He gave you that look.”
Maddox said he encountered Wilkerson on his way out of the restroom. Wilkerson blocked the door and Maddox said “I’m right here. What are you going to do?” Wilkerson’s answer was to fight. The scuffle quickly went to the floor where Maddox found himself pinned beneath Wilkerson’s 290-pound body. That’s when Maddox used the small knife on his keychain to cut Wilkerson’s cheek. “He was on top of me,” Maddox said. “I was using anything I could to get him off me.” While it is easy to make the case that defending himself was justified, the prosecutors suggested that introducing a weapon to the fight was an escalation.
Wilkerson’s wife ran to the restroom and witnessed her husband on top of Maddox throwing punches. Wilkerson was known for wearing big rings on practically every finger, making his punches particularly effective. She pleaded with her husband to stop, and it took several men to pull him off Maddox. By then, the cut on Wilkerson’s cheek began bleeding badly. Maddox retreated. Wilkerson became enraged.
The second confrontation is in dispute because prosecutors deny it happened. According to Maddox’s account, Wilkerson tracked him down and attacked him again, grabbing him by the throat and forcing him to the ground. Once again, Maddox found himself pinned under Wilkerson’s weight, and it took several bystanders to get him off. The account frames Wilkerson as the aggressor -- for a second time.
Regarding the deadly third encounter, the matter of who was the first aggressor was not quite so clear. Wilkerson drove up to Maddox’s location on his motorcycle. By then, Maddox had armed himself with his .44 revolver, and he was prepared to use it. Wilkerson got of his bike and started charging, Maddox said, before he fired the first shot at his attacker. This is one of the details, however, that Maddox confused during his recorded interview with law enforcement.
The confusion allowed prosecutors to accuse Maddox of firing as Wilkerson dismounted, suggesting that he had already made his mind up to shoot Wilkerson and was just waiting for him to arrive. The forensic analysis of Wilkerson’s wounds, however, left open the possibility that Maddox’s version of the event was true. Wilkerson’s blood was found closer to Maddox’s bike than his own, and the police, who conducted a relatively slipshod investigation, failed to procure any witnesses that substantially disputed Maddox’s claims. The resolution of this dispute would be left up the jury.
The state made the case that Maddox escalated the confrontation when he decided to arm himself rather than leave. In the amount of time it took Maddox to get his firearm, they said he could have left the scene. “This was a man on a seek and destroy mission to kill Kelly Wilkerson”, they told the jury.
Did Maddox miss an opportunity to leave and avoid a third confrontation? Perhaps. But Maddox gave reasons for sticking around. He was physically shaken from his previous encounters with Wilkerson -- his legs were rubbery, and he was soaked with sweat. He was probably not in an ideal condition for driving. Moreover, he had three locks on his bike, so it wasn’t a matter of just hopping on and driving off.
Although he didn’t run away, Maddox did make efforts to escape Wilkerson’s attention. He removed his club colors, hoping that without them he would blend into the crowd. He retreated around a corner and found a place in the shadows in an attempt to stay out of view. He dialed 911 for help. At trial, defense lawyers told a jury that murderers don’t dial 911 before they kill.
While Wilkerson attacked Maddox at every opportunity, Maddox made great efforts to retreat and de-escalate the confrontation. Don West, National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe says, “Twice he got away from Wilkerson, and only with the help of others. By the time of the fatal confrontation, he had called 911, he was looking for help, he was looking for a way out, and he couldn’t come up with one.”
The lesson for the concealed carrier is, if you can avoid resorting to deadly force, you should. Making clear efforts to retreat from a potential physical conflict speaks volumes about intent. In Maddox’s case, his repeated efforts to escape Wilkerson’s attacks served to refute the prosecutor’s “seek and destroy” narrative.
In the next installment of The Four Elements of Self-Defense, we’ll explore the role that reasonable fear played in the legal defense of Stephen Maddox.