Judge upholds jury’s recommendation of death for Willie Wilks

By Joe Gorman



Judge Lou D’Apolito agreed there are mitigating factors in the case of a man jurors recommended be sentenced to death for the murder of a 20-year-old woman.

Judge D’Apolito said, however, the escalation of a “domestic dispute” over a bank card that led to the killing of 20-year-old Ororo Wilkins last May far outweighed those mitigating factors. He upheld the recommendation that 42-year-old Willie Wilks be sentenced to death.

Wilks was stoic as Judge D’Apolito announced his decision Wednesday in Mahoning County Common Pleas Court.

Wilkins’ grandmother, Hattie Wilkins, told the judge after the sentence was imposed, “I would gladly trade my life for hers so she would have a chance to raise a family and do other things.”

A jury convicted Wilks on April 14 for the aggravated murder of Ororo Wilkins and the attempted aggravated murders of Alex Morales, who was wounded in the back, and Wilkins’ brother Willie, who police say was shot at by Wilks and missed.

Jurors also found Wilks was eligible for the death penalty because he killed a person while trying to kill two or more people. They recommended April 28 that he be put to death.

Prosecutors said Ororo Wilkins was killed after Wilks, who was dating her mother, got into an argument May 21, 2013, with her brother over a bank card belonging to the mother.

Willie Wilkins went to Wilks’ home and the two had words, then Wilks pulled a gun. A short time later, Willie Wilkins tried to speak with his mother on the phone, but Wilks got on the line and argued with him.

Wilks then drove to a Park Avenue home and shot Morales in the back. Morales dropped a baby he was holding, and Ororo Wilkins was shot in the head as she reached for the baby. Willie Wilkins was in an upstairs bedroom and was fired at, but Wilks missed.

Wilks steadfastly maintained his innocence during the trial.

He chose not to address the court Wednesday, instead relying on an unsworn statement he delivered during his mitigation hearing asking that his life be spared so he can be alive for his young son.

Judge D’Apolito said the argument escalating to the point where a life was taken outweighed factors brought up by defense attorneys Tom Zena and Ron Yarwood — that Wilks wanted to be alive for his 3-year-old son, never had a father figure, had a troubled childhood, and showed remorse for the death and also empathy when family members testified and he was in tears.

“We know he is capable of empathy and caring for others,” Yarwood said. “It does not demean what happened. It’s, ‘What do we do now?’”

Zena said Wilks’ life should be spared because defendants in other death-penalty cases in the past were sentenced to life in prison with no parole on recommendations by juries. He said those are examples of standards the community has set for sentencing.

Zena also said state law requires judges to review the jury’s decision in death-penalty cases to make sure the sentence is appropriate. He urged Judge D’Apolito to find that Wilks’ life should be spared.

But reading from his opinion, Judge D’Apolito said death was the appropriate decision. He also sentenced Wilks to 31 years in prison on the attempted-murder charges and firearm specifications.

Hattie Wilkins said she feels no malice toward Wilks or anyone else.

“It’s in God’s hands now,” Hattie Wilkins said. “I know ‘RoRo’ would be saying the same thing.”

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