Kentucky v. Justin Willhelm

This case involved a defendant charged with murder.  The defendant, Mr. Wilhelm, claimed that he surprised an intruder who then tried to run him (Wilhelm) over with his (the intruder) car.  Due to his disability, Wilhelm could not dodge the car and shot through the windshield of the car,  Being that a car driven in such a manner is a deadly weapon, Wilhelm felt that he was justified in shooting at the windshield.

The Public Defender knew that she needed a terminal ballistics expert and, as the case developed, she needed ammunition design expertise.

This case is remarkable for the level of assistance requested from the FBI.  The FBI (more Title 5 and the great beltway money machine elsewhere) sent a team of one crime scene investigator and two graphic artists to assist.  The cartoons produced by the “artists” were stunning in their escape from reality in order to gain a conviction.

By the time I was called in, Mr. Wilhelm had already signed the waiver for speedy trial.  The FBI had come and gone.  I started with an inspection of the car.  A very earnest and sincere detective sergeant asked if I was going to repeat the FBI “dowel rod test”.  I played stupid and he disclosed the shenanigans of the FBI.  They rammed a dowel through the bullet hole in the center of the windshield and pointed it to the assumed chest of a driver sitting at the steering wheel.  When they could not get that to match, the “artists” theorized that Wilhelm had stood to the side of the car.  Their cartoon showed Wilhelm, from the passenger side of the car, firing both at the windshield, and also through the open front passenger window.  Their computer simulation (read “cartoon”) showed exactly that, with one bullet hitting the windshield and the death bullet coming through the open passenger window and then traveling transverse through the deceased’s chest.  I must confess that I could not see Wile E. Coyote nor Road Runner anywhere in the FBI simulation, nor did I hear Bugs Bunny say “That’s all folks”.

From what was left of the windshield, I saw no sign that any of the bullets had gained entry to the windshield on a low obliquity shot (obliquity is the opposite of angle, ie. 0 obliquity is perpendicular to the surface at the point of impact and 5 or 10 obliquity is 5 or 10 degrees up from parallel to the surface at the point of impact.).  In fact, if it had been a high obliquity shot, fired from the passenger side, the bullet would have ricocheted off the windshield and left a completely different set of damage to the windshield.

I then examined the alleged death bullet.  The striations and markings on the bullet (from the bits of breaking glass) clearly showed that it had impacted and gained entry to the windshield at near 0 obliquity.  Further, the jacket had almost separated from the leaden core.   The bullet and core had reacted much as an unstable binary star system, ie. they rotated around each other and veered in unstable free flight in the same direction as the rifling twist, to the right.  A mark superimposed over the circular striations on the leaden core (again, such marks caused by minute fragments of glass as the windshield broke and showing that the bullet was still spinning from the rifling twist) showed that the bullet had stopped its spin stabilization at some point after penetrating the windshield.

This fit with the autopsy report, which had been given to the public defender.  The report described an odd shaped entry between two ribs, severing the aorta and then hitting the left lung.  But careful reading of the report (autopsy reports break things down into toxicology paragraphs, not terminal ballistics organization) indicated that the left lung did not fill with blood.  This would contradict the state’s contention that the shot had been from the passenger side of the car and gone transverse through the deceased’s chest.

The public defender did not have any autopsy photographs.  She had been told that they “did not show anything” and that the photographs “were not important”.  She believed that.  I urged her to visit Mr. Wilhelm in the jail and to encourage him.  I also told her that she must get the autopsy photographs.  She told me she was too busy, but she did request the photographs in writing.

I had to drive back to Paducah a second time and went to the ME’s office.  The reception was chilly.  I got the photographs only on my third request, and after being told they did not show anything.  I looked through them, paused on one, and then walked out with the photographs.  As I did, I heard the assistant mutter to the ME “Sh*t, he knows.”.

The photographs showed absolutely no blood in the nose, nor the mouth nor the airway.  The conclusion was clear; the shooting incident happened exactly as Mr. Wilhelm said it did. The FBI’s contention that an unendangered man murdered the driver by firing from the passenger side was total fiction.  If the fatal shot had been fired transverse across the car, without the deceleration caused by the windshield, the left lung would have been penetrated.  It would have filled with blood, which would have been aspirated into the airway, mouth and nose.

The deceased actually bled to death, inside his own body, from the severed aorta.  He was found sitting upright in the driver’s seat, car pushing against a tree, engine idling, transmission in drive.  And a detailed reading of the autopsy report supported this conclusion due to the quantities of blood recovered from the thoracic cavity (these quantities being listed in the toxicology portion of the report).  The defense would have won at trial.

However, Mr. Wilhelm had been scheduled for hip replacement before the shooting incident.  He sat in the county jail pre-trial, and was denied medical attention, to include necessary opioid pain medications (he did not even get an aspirin), for over a year. The prosecution continued to delay his trial.  Wilhelm could not endure the suffering and pled for time served so he could get proper medical treatment.  The prosecution technically scored a “win” but at least Mr. Wilhelm was freed and got his surgery.

This case illustrates why NACDL is so important.  The public defender was sincere, but overloaded and incompetent.  And what sheriff’s department jailer will deny a prisoner, in obvious severe pain, even so much as an aspirin.