The Durham County District Attorney’s Office dismissed a murder charge against a man last week in a shooting that killed one man and left his mother with a chest that aches from broken-heart syndrome.
Denise Ray said she wasn’t surprised when Assistant District Attorney Mary Jude Darrow summoned her to the District Attorney’s Office to tell her the charges against Donnelle Wilkerson would be dismissed.
“I had already given up,” Denise Ray, 50, told The News & Observer.
Wilkerson was charged with first-degree murder in the killing of Ray’s son, Justin Royster. The 27-year-old was shot and died while sitting in his car parked outside his grandparents’ house on Canal Street in May 2018. Another man was also shot in the 11 p.m. shooting.
The murder charge against Wilkerson was dismissed July 19 due to insufficient evidence, according to court records.
Attorney: Wilkerson didn’t do it
Wilkerson, 32, was innocent of the murder charge, his attorney Robert Singagliese wrote in an email.
Multiple eyewitnesses didn’t identify Wilkerson, he wrote, and a fingerprint pointed to another suspect.
“Victims and the community are rightly disappointed if/when a crime goes unsolved,” he wrote. “However, it is also an injustice when an innocent person is processed in the criminal legal system.”
Wilkerson was incarcerated for about a year for a crime he didn’t commit, his attorney wrote. Once arrested on the charge, he remained in jail on $150,000 bail.
District Attorney spokesperson Sarah Willets said the DA’s Office has been coordinating more with other agencies to reduce the number of dismissals. There has been one other homicide dismissal this year, she said.
On the run
Wilkerson was charged with murder about six months after the killing but remained on the run until he arrested and held on a charge in Georgia in 2020.
“You know what you did, and you know it was wrong. I want you to come forward because I need closure,” Ray told WRAL on the one-year anniversary of her son’s death in 2019.
Ray told The N&O last week that the years of delays and grief
sapped her quest for justice.
After Wilkerson was found, Ray thought she could begin to heal. She thought Wilkerson would spend the rest of his life in prison.
“I was going to get closure,” she said.
As Ray attended Wilkerson’s bail bond hearings, it became apparent that prosecutors didn’t have the evidence to convict him.
Meanwhile, Ray’s father died in January 2019. Her mother’s health continued to decline, requiring frequent hospitalizations until she died in January 2020. As Ray juggled the grief, and two jobs, she didn’t take time to grieve until she she was forced to take a break during the pandemic.
A broken heart
One day at home, Ray started crying and couldn’t stop for weeks. She felt like an empty shell.
Her family urged her to get help.
“My son looked at me and said, ‘I need you, too,’” she said. A contact at the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, which works with homicide victims’ families, recommended a therapist.
She began to feel better, but experienced some health issues and was diagnosed with fibromalgia, which causes fatigue and body pain and was likely caused from traumatic grief, Ray said she was told.
Ray was also diagnosed with broken heart syndrome, takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which causes severe chest pain that mimics a heart attack.
Now, Ray is trying to move forward and tend to those who are living.
“I have erased it from me. I went on with my life because I can’t bring my son back,” she said. “If people who are involved don’t step up, I feel like there is nothing left that the police can do. So I am just numb to the existence of this problem. ”
Royster was the kind of son who helped take care of his grandparents and would volunteer to be his mother’s date if she didn’t have one, she said. He had two children, ages 8 and 5.
Royster had started to get in trouble during high school, and his mother enrolled him in military school that helped him find a passion for barbering. Royster eventually worked his way up to barber school. He graduated from the school but struggled to get his license, his mother said.
Ray said she felt like that was a turning point in his life that led him to the streets.
Royster moved from Butner, where he was interning with a barber, to Durham around 2010.
After his death, his mother learned he was affiliated with a gang, but she said she doesn’t think that had anything to do with the killing.
May 3, 2018
As Ray understands it, the events leading to the killing started with Royster defending a woman in a domestic violence situation and offending another man, she said.
About two weeks later, Royster walked his grandmother from her porch to inside her house and said goodbye. His grandmother heard pops when she was in the bathroom.
She thought it was the Durham Bulls’ fireworks, but then heard the sirens outside her window.
Ray, who lives in a neighboring county, drove to Durham holding on to hope that it wasn’t her son.
Ray jumped out of the car and ran toward the flashing police lights. A crowd divided to give her access to his car, but an officer stopped her. She was Justin Royster’s mother, she told him.
“I need someone to tell me that was not my son,” she told the officer.
Later police confirmed it was her son, and she let out a powerful scream.
“I think the people in Africa could have hard,” she said.
Royster died in his car that night, but that didn’t stop a repeat offense.
“They shot my son on a Thursday,” Ray said. “They shot up my Mom’s house that Sunday evening.”
Thankfully, she said, no one was home.
As Ray dealt with her grief, someone suggested she come up with a project to honor her son and parents. That project turned out to be a small business that grew out of providing T-shirts for her husband’s car club during the pandemic. She named the business Roxko’s Kustum Designz. Roxko, pronounced rocco, was Royster’s nickname, she said.
“That was the best exercise. The best way to keep my mind focused on something and honoring all three of them,” she said.
Ray said she doesn’t blame anyone for not getting justice her son, except those who didn’t come forward.
She summed her experience up in a Facebook post last week, when she featured a picture of a sculpture of a metal man with a hole in the middle. The picture shows how her body will feel forever, she wrote.
“If you know what is going on in your neighborhood, SPEAK UP AND PUT THE PEOPLE BEHIND BARS THAT NEED TO BE!!!! ,” she wrote. “This situation could have been over 4 years ago!!! If people would have SPOKEN UP!!! THE KILLER IS STILL OUT THERE!!!!”
This story was originally published July 25, 2022 5:40 AM.
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