TULSA, Okla. — Panic Button is a true crime podcast that has dedicated 12 episodes to the 1998 Wilkens homicide case that took place in Tulsa, Okla. So far they have had a total of 17,400 listens.
On April 28, 1998, April Wilkens shot and killed her ex-fiancé Terry Carlton. In 1999, Wilkens was sentenced to life in prison for the crime.
Local attorneys and co-hosts, Colleen McCarty and Leslie Briggs have dove into the background, the evidence, the domestic and sexual violence history, the stalking claims, the police reports, the witness accounts, the trial, the court documents and transcripts of the Wilkens case.
In episode 11, The True Experts, McCarty and Briggs speak with two specialists from the domestic violence field.
Angela Beatty is with the YWCA Oklahoma City, and runs some of its domestic violence services. Molly Bryant, formerly with Domestic Violence Intervention Services [DVIS], is currently with YWCA Tulsa, and works with the immigrant and refugee populations.
The co-hosts and the experts dive into the cultural stereotypes of a domestic violence victim and how they believe that played into the Wilkens trial.
“Our society’s understanding of domestic violence is just fundamentally wrong. And just to get us to an understanding of whatever you probably imagined domestic violence to look like, or be like, and feel like is not reality for most people,” said Bryant. “The perception of what a survivor looks like, and how survivors should act, the domestic violence movement did it to themselves, like screwing themselves over by presenting survivors as, visibly beaten up, usually like pretty skinny, white women. That’s just not what we see. That doesn’t represent the spectrum of survivors. When you start working with survivors, yes, that may be your thought like, this seems really irrational, really unreasonable behavior. Why would someone behave that way?”
Beatty agrees, “One of the biggest misses that people miss and judge is how far widespread the actual control is in the relationship. A victim’s behavior is often counterintuitive. It doesn’t make sense for victims to do things like immediately bail their abuser out of jail, once he gets arrested for assaulting them. Even though you may not physically be in their presence, there’s still this, you know, strong arm of control around you, that inhibits your ability to seek support outside of that. And so I think people just misjudge what that really looks like, what does it look like when your whole worldview is changed and becomes focused on someone else?” Beatty adds that domestic violence victims, “Do what they think will keep them the most safe in a moment, because they are the expert on their lives. And so if the thing that will keep me the most safe in the moment is acquiescing to whatever he wants, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
The discussion continues when McCarty brings up how she believes jurors struggled to wrap their heads around Wilkens’ behavior the night of the shooting.
“The thing that the jury found unforgivable about April’s case is that she went to Terry’s house the night of the shooting, and that is just something that they cannot get past. Because it’s like if she was in this mortal danger that she says she was in, why would she come out? Why would she go to his house? Why would she ring the doorbell at 2 a.m. with somebody who’s very violent and unpredictable, but everything you just said just validates her story, which is that she was trapped into a corner to the point where she knew if she sat, lying in wait, what she had done before, she would have just been hurt or killed. If she went to her house, she would have been hurt or killed. If she tried to run away, she would have been probably chased and hurt or killed. I mean, the number of times that she had tried to run from his house and been caught, pulled back in by the hair,” said McCarty.
The podcast episode, The True Experts, really begins to dissect the term, Battered Woman Syndrome.
The basic definition of Battered Woman Syndrome is “a pattern of signs and symptoms displayed by a woman who has suffered persistent intimate partner violence,” explains McCarty.
“It’s interesting, Battered Woman Syndrome gets used a lot in the legal field. But in the actual advocacy realm, we don’t use it at all. The research, I think, came out of like the 60s or 70s. And so it is a bit outdated, which is one of the reasons why we don’t use it as much anymore. I feel like the ambivalence that survivors often feel after being in really tumultuous, corrosive coercively controlling right relationships, or after experiencing a lifetime of trauma because a lot of the people we serve has experienced trauma that started in our childhoods,” said Beatty. “And so that compounding trauma coupled with either failures of the criminal justice system to hold the perpetrator accountable, they feel like there’s no real relief and so as a result, survivors often feel like I can’t get help. And so I think that ends up being kind of what people coined as Battered Woman Syndrome.”
Later in episode 11, Briggs brings up the fact that Wilkens had filed three different Emergency Protective Orders filed against Carlton and it still did not prevent Carlton from stalking Wilkens before the shooting.
“While yes, they can be a helpful tool. In some situations, protective orders are only as, as valid or as good as the enforcement of them,” said Beatty. “Let’s not forget that abusers are often connected, they use the money, power and connections to their disposal. I never will forget one of the first clients that served at YWCA as a baby advocate, her abuser, his mom worked at like, high up in the state office, like the Department of Corrections office. And so she knew all the judges in Oklahoma County and would go to barbecues, at their houses. And so he got away with everything.”
In episode 12, The Aftermath, McCarty opens the episode by saying that before the co-hosts started producing the podcast, they reached out to two members of the Carlton family.
“We genuinely wanted to give them the opportunity to share their memories of Terry and the effect that his death has had on their family. Unfortunately, today, we have not received a response,” said McCarty.
Episode 12 continues with Juror 1 from the Wilkens case giving listeners a glimpse of what really happened during the trial.
McCarty states that it took the jury 12 hours to deliberate a guilty verdict.
A member of the jury spoke on the podcast. Referred to as Juror #1, she said had only been called for jury duty once in her life and it was for the April Wilkens murder case.
“I was frustrated because there were only two choices for jury verdicts. We were not offered anything less. It’s this or this. And there’s nothing over here which I would have been much inclined to gravitate toward. And so there was no other opportunity. It was first-degree murder or first-degree murder, murder without parole. And so believe it or not the majority of our time was spent convincing jurors, that she did not deserve to go to prison for the rest of her life with no possibility of parole,” said Juror 1.
About four to five years ago, Juror 1 began to think back to the Wilkens trial so she looked it up and said she was surprised to learn that she was still in prison.
McCarty asks Juror 1 if jurors were given an option to consider a shorter prison term, in addition to the options of life in prison with and without the possibility of parole, what would she have recommended?
“I suppose like, seven to 10,” said Juror 1. “She took human life even though she was frightened. So she had to pay a price. But it seems to me that that would have been much fairer for her.”
The last episode of Panic Button’s first season gives a voice to the many advocates of April Wilkens.
Wilkens’ son Hunter was only eight when his mother was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. At the end of podcast 12, Hunter shares what he remembers about the fights between Carlton and his mom that he heard as a child.
“Now when I look back at the memories that I have, it’s more and more clear to me. I guess where I’m going is the main feeling I got from Terry, was I guess it’s the tone of voice. I heard when they were fighting which still gives me chills to this %#$%*&^ unchecked anger,” said Hunter. “And you can tell that it’s dark anger. It’s not like righteous anger. It’s not anger, anger. There’s something sick about it. That’s what really gives me chills to this day. God, if this would have happened now, I think this would be a completely different story.”
Hunter also talks about how he discovered how his mom shot and killed Carlton. He was living with his biological father after his mother had been arrested. Hunter says that while he was sitting at the kitchen table, his dad grabbed a newspaper with the story of Carlton being killed by his mother, and slaps it down in front of him.
Hunter says his dad then told him, “I want you to find out the way everyone else finds out and I want you to know the exact same information that everyone knows, so you’re not blindsided by anything. So I had to read the front page of the newspaper with this on it. That’s how I found out. A little traumatizing. I mean, a little messed up.”
Hunter then adds, “I think shortly after that, is when she called the first time from, I think that it was jail.”
McCarty states that Wilkens has been denied parole four times.
In March 2013, Wilkens was granted a hearing and her parole was denied.
In 2016, Wilkens was denied a hearing.
Wilkens was granted a hearing in 2019. Two members of the parole board voted, yes. Three members voted, no. Parole was denied.
On March 7, 2022, Wilkens was denied another hearing.
Listeners also hear from Amanda Ross in episode 12. Ross is Wilkens’ niece and one of her biggest advocates.
“One thing that I want the world to know about April’s case is that even if you can, by some chance, look past all of the unfairness and the injustice if you look at her attempts for commutation and parole, that has broken my heart the most. In the fact that there’s nothing, she can do to seemingly attain parole. The jury sentenced her to life with the possibility of parole. They didn’t want her to sit there and rot for the rest of her life. And the fact that she can’t seem to make parole, it’s just so heartbreaking,” said Ross. “The system is broken. And I don’t know what else to do at this point. So when she lost her last parole attempt, we had never had that much hope before. And she didn’t even get a hearing this time when she has in the past and I just remember crying on the phone with her. So that really broke my heart, all of that hard work.”
Briggs closes the 12th podcast by saying, “I care very deeply about this case, but also this issue. And honestly, just making the justice system work better for everyone out there who gets caught up in it. And for the people that don’t, we all deserve a fair system. We do. The idea of it being fair is essential to our republic. Truly foundational.”
McCarty says Panic Button’s season one will officially close at a live, interactive performance on Saturday, Sept. 24 at the Center for Public Secrets in Tulsa. The event begins at 7 p.m., it’s free and is open to the public.
Wilkens has been at the Mabel Basset Correctional Center for about 25 years.
McCarty states that Wilkens’ attorneys are continuing to investigate all possible legal avenues of relief.
The Aftermath episode ends with a message from Wilkens.
“I feel like this is the bigger story. I mean that I feel like the biggest story, the most impactful story is people coming together and actually doing something and caring, amazing to me. I’ve seen a lot of cold years, where you get in here and you’re just really, really forgotten,” said Wilkens. “I know God is there and I know, but to see the community move and see other women move is so inspiring to me. That keeps giving me hope because I’m not the only woman in here under these circumstances. I’m surrounded by a lot of women who’ve been through injustices. So you take women and they’re already traumatized, and you’ve put them in here together and there’s a lot of suffering and there’s a lot of pain. It’s easy to feel forgotten so to see people on the outside, coming together for us. I am beyond grateful for all the advocates out there fighting for me and ultimately all the domestic violence survivors!”
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