In mid-1994, a spree of armed robberies occurred across Jackson, Mississippi.
Despite a lack of any physical evidence, in June 1994, Cedric Willis, then just 19 years old, was arrested for two of the robberies. One included the rape of a woman and another included the murder of Carl White, Jr.
Both crimes occurred within five days of each other. The victims were accosted in their driveways by an identical-looking gunman who attacked them and demanded money. In both cases the gunman tried to shoot his victims in the leg.
Ballistics testing showed that the same gun was used in both crimes and in three other robberies within two hours of the murder of Mr. White. The M.O. for each crime was almost identical, and victims all gave similar descriptions of the perpetrator. The descriptions did not include tattoos, but did include a gold tooth.
Despite the fact that Mr. Willis was 70lbs heavier than the victims’ description of the perpetrator, had arms covered in tattoos and did not have a gold tooth, his photograph was shown to all of the victims based on a tip allegedly received by Jackson police. The victims from both of the crime scenes identified Mr. Willis.
However, a year after his arrest, DNA testing performed on the rape kit taken from the rape victim excluded Mr. Willis and the victim’s husband as the donor of the semen.
The State then dropped the rape charges against Mr. Willis and proceeded to try him only for the murder / robbery of the White family. The State asked that the jury not be permitted to hear that DNA had excluded him in a similar crime which was committed by a person matching the description and using the same gun as Carl White Jr.’s killer. The court agreed. The State also asked that the jury not be permitted to hear that the same gun that killed Carl White, Jr. was used in three other robberies within two hours of Mr. White’s murder; robberies to which Mr. Willis could not be connected. The court agreed.
The jury, who heard only the compelling eyewitness testimony of the murder victim’s family, convicted Mr. Willis and sentenced him to life in prison for the murder, plus 90 years—30 years each for the armed robberies of the murder victim’s three family members.
IPNO began investigating the case in 2004 and, with the assistance of volunteer co-counsel, Tom Fortner, won a new trial for Mr. Willis in 2005. With the assistance of second volunteer co-counsel, Chris Klotz, the State was persuaded to join IPNO in asking the charges to be dismissed. After nearly 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Mr. Willis walked down the front steps of the Hinds County jail into the arms of his family and supporters on March 6, 2006.
Mr. Willis, having lost the first 12 years of his adult life while he was imprisoned, is now helping to raise his son, who was born two weeks before his arrest. He is also a keen public speaker and participates in voter registration work in Jackson, Mississippi. Meanwhile, the two prosecutors who tried Mr. Willis, Ed Peters and Bobby Delaughter, both lost their law licenses due to an unrelated federal criminal investigation. Mr. Delaughter, pled guilty to a federal obstruction of justice charge and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Editorial, “Prosecute the Prosecutors.” Jackson Free Press, December 9, 2009.
Johns, Brian, “Deepest Midnight: Cedric Willis and The Failure of Mississippi Justice,” Jackson Free Press, December 8, 2009.
Lynch, Adam, “Willis to be Compensated for 'Egregious' Prosecution,” Jackson Free Press, December 8, 2009.
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