Stephen Maddox, right, and one of his defense attorneys, Kurt Schmidt, wait as the jury deliberates Saturday morning.
Olivia Neeley | Times
By Olivia Neeley
Times Staff Writer
Stephen Maddox placed his hands over his face and then broke down and cried.
As the seconds grew longer, so did the tears for the 43-year-old Durham man. He had just been found not guilty on all charges Saturday in connection to the shooting death of 41-year-old Kelly Wilkerson.
It took jurors less than two hours to render a not guilty verdict. The jury also had the option of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.
“It’s hard to even put into words,” Maddox later said, standing outside on the courthouse steps. “It’s been two years since I had to feel myself go through that traumatic experience and have the legal system on top of that put me through another traumatic experience.”
And that fight for his freedom came to an end Saturday.
“I was always confident that justice would prevail as long as I kept faith in the system,” Maddox later told The Wilson Times. “The judge and the jury did an outstanding job following the letter of the law.”
Maddox shot 41-year-old Kelly Wilkerson of Raleigh in self-defense outside Bill Ellis Convention Center on the night of Oct. 17, 2015. The two were separately attending a motorcycle club’s 10-year anniversary event. Maddox testified he feared for his life that night after Wilkerson approached and attacked him three times prior to the shooting.
Maddox, married and the father of three children, also had a carry and conceal permit.
“I wish that night the police would have slowed down and followed the evidence and facts that would have led them to the truth two years ago,” Maddox said. “I have no harsh feelings for the Wilson Police Department.” Maddox said he plans to take what he went through and turn it into something positive to help others, including taking a message about anti-bullying to schools, working on mental health, substance abuse and criminal justice reforms.
“There is a platform after this ... a message beyond this,” he said Saturday.
‘BELIEF IN THE SYSTEM RESTORED’
Sighs of relief and tears from his family and friends were heard after Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Milton F. Fitch Jr. read aloud the jury’s not guilty verdict inside a Wilson County courtroom.
After Maddox wiped away the tears, it didn’t take long before he reached out to his defense team — attorneys Tartt Thomas and Kurt Schmidt. He gave them both hugs. He later moved on, embracing his wife, family and friends, some of whom testified on his behalf during the trial.
Schmidt and Thomas also appeared to be overwhelmed with emotion as they went down the row and shook hands with Maddox’s family members and friends.
“Stephen is grateful for the jury and the judicial process as a whole,” Thomas said in statement on behalf of himself and Schmidt. “His belief in the system was shaken at times, especially with certain aspects of the investigation. This jury was able to work through days of testimony, forensic and video evidence, expert witnesses and much more. Ultimately, the jury got it right. Obviously Stephen is pleased with the verdict as he has always maintained his innocence. His belief in the system has been restored.”
While the trial lasted more than two weeks, jurors remained engaged and attentive. Fitch charged the jury at the beginning of the court proceeding Saturday. Jurors reached a verdict shortly before 12:25 p.m. Wilkerson’s wife, Adia, was comforted by family and friends as well Saturday. Each one showed support to her. Adia was married to her husband for 13 years, and the two enjoyed riding motorcycles together for years, she testified.
“He was my world, and he was gone,” she said from the witness stand two weeks ago. “I didn’t understand.’
In her testimony, she said she never once doubted God or blamed God for what happened.
She said she had to learn how to live again and how to live without her husband. She also told Maddox from the witness stand that she forgave him.
“I have to forgive you for me to move on with my life,” she said at the time.
Wilkerson approached Maddox outside the convention center bathroom the night of the incident. Maddox testified that Wilkerson threw him up against the wall and eventually got him on the ground and was on top of him. Wilkerson choked him, Maddox testified, causing him to black out for several seconds. He reached for the only thing he had at the time, a small box cutter he normally carried on him for work purposes. It took four men to get Wilkerson, a 300-pound man, off of him.
Maddox eventually got away, but Wilkerson approached him again — this time on the side of the convention center. That’s where, according to testimony, Wilkerson threw him up against a car, and it took two men to pry him off him again. Maddox testified he didn’t know what would happen next. He feared for his life and believed that if Wilkerson got in control of the situation again, he was going to kill him.
He retrieved his gun. Wilkerson pulled up on his motorcycle, parked it and got off. He started to charge Maddox, according to testimony. Wilkerson grabbed him, and Maddox shot him.
The two wrestled on the ground where he fired additional shots.
Maddox had also called 911. When he talked to the 911 operator, he did everything they told him to do.
He also told them what had happened. Maddox waited for police to arrive in a well-lit area.