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Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Affirms Death Penalty for Youngstown Man

Image of death row inmate Willie Wilks Jr.

Death row inmate Willie Wilks Jr.

Image of death row inmate Willie Wilks Jr.

Death row inmate Willie Wilks Jr.

The Ohio Supreme Court today affirmed the conviction and death sentence of a man who approached the porch area of a Youngstown home with a semiautomatic rifle, shot a woman to death, and wounded a man holding an infant.

The Supreme Court unanimously rejected Willie Wilks Jr.’s challenge to his 2014 convictions and death sentence for the May 2013 murder of Ororo Wilkins and the attempted murders of Alexander Morales Jr. and William Wilkins Jr. The murders stemmed from a running dispute that started earlier in the day between Wilkins Jr., known as “Mister,” and Wilks, who was the boyfriend of Wilkins’ mother.

Wilks argued at trial that he was innocent and raised 19 legal arguments on appeal, known as propositions of law, against his convictions and death penalty. He asserted that the sentence was inappropriate compared with others tried in Mahoning County for aggravated murder who did not receive the death penalty.

Writing for the Court, Justice Judith L. French stated that “the death penalty is both appropriate and proportionate when compared to other course-of-conduct murders for which the death penalty has been imposed.”

Dispute Ends with Gunshots Fired
In the afternoon of May 21, 2013, Mister and Morales drove to the home of Renea Jenkins, Mister’s girlfriend. Mister lived at the home and went to his upstairs bedroom. Ororo Wilkins, Mister’s sister, and Morales were seated on Jenkins’ porch. Morales was holding Jenkins’ 5-month-old daughter when Wilks arrived.

Morales testified that a dark blue or purple-colored car with a driver and two passengers pulled up to the home. He said Wilks exited the car and walked up to the porch with an “AK rifle” and asked where Mister was. Morales turned with the baby to go inside and Wilks shot him in the back. As Ororo went to pick up the baby, Wilks shot her in the head. Mister stated that he screamed at Wilks from a window in the upstairs bedroom when Wilks was shooting toward the porch, and Wilks shot at him and hit the house.

Investigators found a single 7.62-by-39 mm shell casing on the front porch. They discovered a bullet strike near the front-door window and one on the upper-story siding. Police learned that Wilks had purchased a 2004 purple Dodge Stratus four days before the shooting. The day after the shooting police spotted Wilks driving a minivan owned by his girlfriend, Mary Aragon, who is Mister’s mother. Wilks abandoned the vehicle and fled, but was apprehended after a short chase.

Loan Request Prompted Escalated Argument
Evidence at the trial indicated that Mister and Morales drove to Aragon’s home to borrow money from her, but found Wilks had both of Aragon’s bank cards. The three then drove to Wilks’ nearby home to get the cards. Aragon knocked on the door and asked Wilks for the cards, which he agreed to give to her, but did not bring them outside.

Mister then knocked on the door and asked for the cards. Wilks gave Mister one card, then asked Mister to come to the back of the house with him. Mister observed that Wilks was “fidgeting in his pants” as if he had a weapon, and Mister started an argument with him. Wilks went back to his house, returned with a 9-mm handgun, and chased Mister down the street pointing the gun at him. Mister, not believing Wilks would shoot him, taunted Wilks. Morales attempted to diffuse the situation and told Wilks they just wanted the bank cards and did not want any trouble. Wilks gave Morales the cards. Morales, Mister, and Aragon left.

Later that day, Mister called his mother and discussed the situation. Wilks got on the phone, and the two men had a heated discussion. Wilks told Mister he was going to kill him. Mister called Wilks a name and hung up. Later that day, Wilks and the two other unidentified men in the car went to Jenkins’ home, where Wilks attempted to confront Mister and the offenses occurred.

Murder Weapon, Vehicle Not Recovered
When police apprehended Wilks, they found more than $2,000 cash and one of Aragon’s bank cards. They found a fully loaded 9-mm handgun in the van, and at the police station they swabbed Wilks’ hands for gunshot residue. Wilks’ Dodge Stratus was not recovered nor was the rifle witnesses saw Wilks use to shoot the two people on the porch. Although Mister identified the two other men in the car from a police photo array, the police were not able to locate the men.

An autopsy revealed Ororo Wilkins died from a bullet wound to the head and that the shell casing found at the scene was commonly fired by either an SKS or AK-47 semiautomatic rifle. Forensic scientists testified that the gunshot residue on Wilks’ hand is formed when a firearm is discharged.

Jury Convicts Shooter and Recommends Death Sentence
A grand jury indicted Wilks on nine counts, including a charge that he purposely and with prior calculation and design committed the aggravated murder of Ororo. The charge included a death penalty specification for a course of conduct involving the purposeful killing of, or attempt to kill, two or more persons. Among the other charges was the attempted murder of Mister and Morales.

At his trial, Wilks pleaded not guilty to all charges, and two charges were dropped. A jury found him guilty of all the remaining charges and specifications and recommended a death sentence. The trial court sentenced him to death for Ororo’s murder and he was given 31 years in prison for the other charges.

Evidence Not Enough to Convict, Wilks Claims
Wilks’ challenges to his conviction included claims of insufficient evidence to support the verdicts. Among his contentions were that two eyewitnesses identified the shooter as wearing his hair in dreadlocks, which Wilks does not, and that there was insufficient ballistic evidence found at the crime scene to prove multiple shots were fired.

Justice French explained that when there is a claim of insufficient evidence, the Court determines “whether, after viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The opinion stated that eyewitness testimony, forensic evidence, circumstantial evidence, and Wilks’ attempt to allude police sufficiently established his guilt.

Wilks claimed there was no reliable ballistic evidence to show that the shots were fired by a rifle. But the Court found the prosecution provided the large shell casing on the porch that the investigators found came from a rifle rather than a handgun. And while only one casing was found at the scene, the bullet strikes and eyewitness testimony indicated multiple shots were fired. Wilks also argued that the gun residue could have come from his handling of the handgun found in the van or even from the arresting officers whose hands came into contact with Wilks during the arrest. The officers indicated they were at the firing range early in the day. And he maintained he had no motive to shoot Ororo, but others did, pointing to testimony that Ororo was “beefing with people” and had a BB gun in her purse along with credit cards and driver’s licenses that belonged to other people.

Wilks also noted the other men identified in the car were never arrested, there was no DNA evidence linking him to the murder, and the murder weapon was never found. The opinion stated that Wilks essentially argued that the state’s evidence should have been better.

“Even if that is true, however, the state need only have had sufficient evidence, not the best possible evidence, to survive a challenge on insufficiency grounds,” the Court wrote.

Court Weighs Merit of Death Sentence
Even though a trial court jury weighs the aggravating circumstances against any mitigating factors before determining a sentence, the Supreme Court conducts its own review to determine the appropriateness of imposing a death sentence.

The Court noted the evidence supported the jury finding that Wilks murdered Ororo as part of a course of conduct, which made Wilks eligible for the death penalty. In considering the mitigating factors, the Court examined Wilks’ statement in court where he expressed “heartfelt condolences to the Wilkins family” and swore that he was innocent. He asked the jury for leniency.

The trial court heard testimony from the mother of Wilks’ 3-year-old son who described him as an attentive father who worked two jobs to financially support his child. Wilks’ half-brother testified about Wilks’ character and his mother testified that Wilks had been very attentive to her needs and helped her in caring for her brother, who suffers from schizophrenia.

The Court found little about Wilks’ character, history, or upbringing to be mitigating, and affirmed his death sentence.  It concluded the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating factors beyond a reasonable doubt.

2014-1035. State v. Wilks, Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-1562.

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