By Alyssa Schnugg
A former University of Mississippi student on death row for the murder of fellow classmate Zacharias McClendon in 2013 was granted a new trial by a Lafayette County Circuit Court judge.
After deliberating for four hours, a jury found Steven Matthew “Matt” Wilbanks guilty of capital murder in February 2018, more than four years after McClendon’s murder on Dec. 17, 2013. He was sentenced to the death penalty.
However, his attorneys claimed the jury was tainted during the jury selection process before the trial and that there was an error in the jury instructions.
Judge Andrew Howorth agreed and granted Wilbanks a new trial which is scheduled to take place in February 2020.
According to the Order Granting a New Trial, Howorth said the court’s instructions to the jury incorrectly referred to the Subpart of Instruction B on two occasions. At the first instance, the instruction should have referred the jury to subpart A. Paragraph No. 1 of section C should have referred back to section A of the instructions instead of Section B.
“As a result of one misplaced letter, the jury in its verdict made findings related to aggravating circumstances twice, and never made the required findings of all facts that they believed existed beyond on a reasonable doubt … Consequently, the verdict was flawed,” the order states.
The other cause of mistrial resulted when attorneys were interviewing a juror who stated he was a police officer with the Oxford Police Department. The officer said he had knowledge of the case and by “virtue of his position as a police officer he could not be fair and impartial.”
A subsequent discussion with a juror at the bench implied that others may have been affected by the officer’s statement.
Howorth said while either error may not constitute a reversible error, granting a new trial was the only appropriate remedy.
“What may be harmless error in a case with less at stake becomes reversible error when the penalty is death,” Howorth said, quoting another similar case.
McClendon’s murder took place in his apartment on County Road 140 just off of College Hill Road in Oxford.
According to court records, Wilbanks along with Joseph Lyons and Derrick Boone, entered McClendon’s apartment and Wilbanks shot him in the back of the head with a 16-gauge shotgun while McClendon was doing dishes.
At the time of the incident, both Wilbanks and Boone were also enrolled in school at Ole Miss; Lyons was a former student.
Boone and Lyons pleaded guilty in exchange to have the death penalty taken off the table and are both serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Wilbanks was not offered a plea deal since he was the one who pulled the trigger.
Wilbanks testified last year that the plan was to kill McClendon so they could steal his money, credit cards and other belongings.
McClendon, a first-year graduate student from Gulfport, was pursuing a Master’s of Business Administration at Ole Miss. Prior to attending Ole Miss, McClendon graduated from Williams College in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.
He was an apprentice for an orthopedic surgeon at Tulane University while in college.
In March, Wilbanks wrote a letter to the court stating he did not want another trial.
“I never wanted to contest the verdict … I do not wish to put the McClendon family, my family or the state of Mississippi through another painful, debilitating trial,” Wilbanks wrote. “I’d rather go back to Death Row.”
Wilbanks’ public defender, Tiffany Kilpatrick, said Friday that Wilbanks withdrew his request about three weeks ago during a status hearing.