Murder acquittal of Deborah Wilkins marks end of violent history

Murder acquittal of Deborah Wilkins marks end of violent history

March 5th, 2015 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Deborah Wilkins

Deborah Wilkins

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

SUMMERVILLE, Ga. -- The curtains, crusted with blood, have closed on the cabin at 2646 John Jones Road.

Isolated for acres in rural Chattooga County, the home of William Robert Packer served as a theater displaying unpunished violence for almost a decade. First there was the time Packer shot bullets into the floor next to his wife's feet in 2007. Three years later, following a divorce, there was the incident when Packer was accused of pressing a gun to the head of his new girlfriend, Deborah Elaine Wilkins.

That same year, in October 2010, Packer killed his friend, James "Pee Wee" Kirby, at his front door. Packer claimed self-defense. Investigators mishandled and lost evidence. A jury acquitted him.

Then, last summer, Wilkins shot Packer five times. Like him, she claimed self-defense in her trial for malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault. On Wednesday morning, after deliberating for 11 hours over three days, a jury acquitted her, too.

As the court clerk read the verdict, Wilkins stared straight ahead, betraying little emotion.

Minutes later, smoking a cigarette outside the courthouse, seated in a wheelchair with a broken ankle, she said she had no idea from the beginning of the trial which way the 12 people deciding her case leaned.

"You couldn't ask for a better jury," she said. "Even if they had sent me off, they done their job."

As she talked, a female juror approached her. She told Wilkins she had wanted to talk to her throughout the trial. Now she could.

"I have the utmost respect for you as an individual," the woman said. "But I do want to say, I hope this changes your life. We all serve a higher power. God helped me make this decision."

"It will," Wilkins told her. "I'm staying away from those kind of men."

"Amen," said her uncle, James Hunt, 86.

On June 14, Wilkins called the sheriff's office to report Packer's death. Or rather, to report a death. She said there was a dead body in her kitchen, according to an incident report, and she was tired of looking at it.

Deputies said she was drunk. She told them Packer had been dead for 13 hours. She said she didn't do it, that Packer lived too close to "them blacks." She mentioned how Packer had killed Kirby, an African-American man from down the road. She said his death sparked racial tensions.

Five days later, during another police interrogation, Wilkins confessed to killing Packer. She said he was mad about a land dispute. In 2010, before he killed Kirby, Packer sold his property to a man in town named Calvin Brooks. Wilkins said he was drunk at the time and didn't realize he sold all 81 acres, land his parents had left him.

Around 3 a.m. that day, Wilkins said, Packer announced he would kill Brooks, as well as his attorney and his attorney's employee. Wilkins said he was also going to kill her because she knew his plans. So he went to his truck to grab his Colt .45.

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But he had left it inside the house. When he returned, still searching, she shot him. She then dumped the gun in the pond behind her mother's home.

Packer's daughter and ex-wife, who sat through the trial, declined to comment after hearing the verdict.

Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin played audio recordings of Wilkins' police interviews during the trial. As a result, Public Defender David Dunn did not need to call her to the stand to support her self-defense claim.

Franklin's key argument was that the jury could not believe Wilkins' version of events. She contradicted herself during her police interviews. She also told investigators she lied on the stand during Packer's murder trial to protect him.

But Franklin wasn't able to cross-examine her. After hearing the verdict Wednesday, he said he didn't want to discuss what questions he would have asked if she had taken the stand.

All but one juror concluded by Tuesday morning that Wilkins was not guilty, in part because the medical examiner could not say specifically how Wilkins shot Packer. Franklin insisted to them that Wilkins stood over her boyfriend and killed him execution-style, while Dunn said his client shot Packer while he charged toward her.

To sway the last holdout who thought Wilkins was guilty, the jury asked for transcripts of her police interviews.

Normally, those transcripts aren't available to a jury because such evidence creates a "continuing witness." They get to hear one side of the case more than other witnesses' sides. But both attorneys agreed to let the jury read the transcripts.

Dunn said he believed Wilkins' transcripts helped her case. Franklin said he didn't know which side they would help.

"I just feel like it's important for [the jury] to have all the evidence they want," he said after hearing the verdict Wednesday.

Jeffrey Conner, the jury foreman, said those transcripts convinced the hold-out juror that Wilkins was not guilty. Her story about the land dispute between Packer and Brooks aligned with letters sent between the two men in the weeks before Packer's death.

Michael Kirby, the brother of the man whom Packer killed in 2010, was happy when he heard Wednesday morning that Wilkins had been acquitted.

"She saved some more lives," he said.

About eight months after Packer's death, his home is still empty, the gate closed in front. It's for sale. A real estate agent said last month it is available for $350,000.

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.


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