Five Shots at Close Range
Lessons from the Stephen Maddox Case
Part 2: Location
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 location of the shooting affected Maddox’s legal defense.
On the night of October 17, 2015, a months-long verbal conflict between Kelly Wilkerson and Stephen Maddox erupted in violence. Wilkerson, who harbored a grudge born of a disagreement over protocol in their motorcycle club, attacked Maddox at Bob’s Convention Center during a local rally. On two occasions, Wilkerson, six-foot-three and 290 pounds, wrestled Maddox to the ground and tried to choke him, only to be wrenched away by bystanders. On a third occasion, Wilkerson dismounted his bike and “charged” at Maddox who had armed himself with a .44 revolver. It took five shots to stop the attack. Police charged Maddox with first-degree murder, initiating a twenty-one month prosecution that ended in a high-profile trial.
The motorcycle rally was held at Bob’s Convention Center in Wilson, North Carolina. It’s a public place, and Maddox is a licensed concealed carrier. Although the convention center didn’t allow weapons inside, the deadly encounter between Wilkerson and Maddox happened in the parking lot. Maddox had a right to be there, and he had a right to be armed. It also meant that there were potential witnesses everywhere. Security cameras that picked up elements of the encounters between the two men.
The aftermath of the first confrontation in the bathroom was captured on surveillance video, as were parts of the final confrontation where Wilkerson was shot. The second altercation, however, occurred in a place with no camera coverage, and it was not captured. That caused Maddox’s defense team some problems at trial.
Prosecutors never believed the second fight happened. Based on the timestamps on the two other videos, they made a case to the jury that Maddox couldn't possibly had traveled between the gaze of the the two cameras and also had time to be in a second fight. At trial, the defense team demonstrated that the timestamps on the two videos weren’t perfectly in sync, and they presented evidence that they could have been as much as two minutes off -- plenty of time to support Maddox’s claim.
The video evidence proved central to the state’s case, and they were adamant their interpretation of the timing was correct. In many ways, the case hinged on what the jury made of this single piece of evidence. Don West, National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe, consulted on the trial. He says that video can be a double-edged sword in a self-defense case. “The only things the video can show us is what it captured,” West says, “and in this case, the video record is incomplete.” Sometimes video can exonerate a justified shooter, but on the other hand, video is often of poor quality, and it doesn’t always show the whole story of what happened. Certain elements of a confrontation may unfold off frame or be obstructed from view. That’s exactly what happened in the Maddox case.
Nonetheless, the modern proliferation of cameras means that in many locations, video may become a very important piece of evidence in a self-defense shooting -- for better or for worse. Don West says, “We are seeing more and more cases where part or all of the event is captured on video, and that’s only going to increase.”
Beyond surveillance cameras, the parking lot outside of Bill’s Convention Center that evening was swarming with people. There were potential witnesses everywhere. Once law enforcement arrived, they deployed technology that could record license plate numbers, meaning they had the ability to follow up with people who may have witnessed the shooting. Maddox believed those eye-witness accounts would support his claim, but police didn’t follow up on those leads, and defense attorneys highlighted their failure to pursue this aspect of the investigation during trial.
The state pointed out at trial that Maddox, when he returned to his motorcycle, could have left the rally, but instead, he chose to stay and arm himself. Because this confrontation occurred in a public place where Maddox had a right to be, North Carolina’s “Stand-Your-Ground” law came into play. By law, Maddox had no duty to retreat when Wilkerson charged at him during the final confrontation. The prosecutors were free to imply that Maddox’s decision not to flee meant that he intended to shoot Wilkerson. They did argue this point, but when the judge charged the jury, he reminded them that Maddox had no duty to retreat. In another state, under different laws, Maddox may have had to account for his choice not to flee.
Down West notes that Maddox had good reasons not to ride away. After surviving two violent attacks, Maddox was too physically shaken to safely ride. If he did ride off, he would have passed right by the location where Wilkerson was last known to be, and Maddox wanted to avoid a potential confrontation while riding alone on the open road. Luckily for Maddox, these arguments were not necessary at trial, because as Don West says, “the law allowed it not to be an issue for the jury.”
The lesson for the concealed carrier is that confrontations that occur in a public place are more likely than ever to be captured on video, and that video is likely to provide a limited perspective on a self-defense shooting and the events that led up to it. Also, whether you live in a ‘Stand-Your-Ground” state or not, your decision to shoot rather than flee can be used to suggest what your motives were in a shooting. Even if the law removes the duty-to-retreat, the decision to shoot will be scrutinized. If you can escape a dangerous situation without using deadly force, you should.
In the next installment of The Four Elements of Self-Defense, we’ll explore the role that escalation played in the legal defense of Stephen Maddox.