On September 18, 2003, Calvin Willis was released from prison after serving more than 21 years for a crime he did not commit. Postconviction DNA testing excluded Willis as the perpetrator of a 1981 rape for which he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In June 1981, an intruder entered a home in Shreveport, Louisiana, where three girls - aged 10, 9, and 7 - had fallen asleep after playing dress-up. Two of the girls had fallen asleep on the couch, the third in bed. The intruder carried the nine-year-old from the couch to the bed, where her seven-year-old sister was sleeping. The ten-year-old victim awoke and saw a man standing above her, naked except for a cowboy hat. The attacker choked her and banged her head against the wall. The victim was able to escape and ran from the intruder, but was caught in the front yard, where a struggle ensued. She was kicked in the stomach and lost consciousness. The girls in the bedroom heard noises but remained in the bedroom. Their mother, the owner of the house, returned in the morning. She called the victim’s mother after noticing that the victim was in pain.
The victim’s mother arrived and the police were summoned. Investigators noted that the victim’s face was bruised and that she was obviously in pain. The police officers that responded to the call testified that the victim was incoherent and did not provide an intelligible description of the assailant. Her mother claimed that she told police that her daughter said an ugly man with a beard under his face did this to her.
The victim was taken to the hospital, where a rape kit, including fingernail scrapings, was collected. The police collected the panties and nightgown that the victim was wearing as well as a bedspread and a pair of men’s size 40 boxer shorts found on the arm of the couch. The boxer shorts had not been there before the crime and the girls’ mother did not recognize them. Investigators attempted to interview the victim at the hospital but were not able to do so.
Police interviews with the nine-year-old girl differed. In one report, she recollected that she was asleep on the couch with the victim and awoke as she was being carried by black man. She could not see his face but described his shoes, which were shaped like cowboy boots. In another report, the girl said that Calvin Willis stopped by the house looking for a woman who lived there previously. Later, another man stopped by looking for the same woman. The second man wore a cowboy hat, cowboy shoes, and had a big blue and white car. This second report was not disclosed at the time of trial. With regard to the crime, she described the assailant as a big man with a cowboy hat, beard, and moustache put her in the bed and attacked the victim. She heard him throw the victim against a wall and threaten to kill her if she called the police. At trial, the girl identified Willis by his boots, though her testimony of what the boots looked like differed from the boots Willis was arrested in two days after the crime. She testified that she did not see the attacker’s face. She also identified the nightgown collected as the one worn by the victim after the attack.
The seven-year-old girl testified that she had been asleep alone and that her sister came into the room later. She awoke when she heard the victim’s cries and the attacker threatening to kill the victim. She identified the voice as that of Calvin Willis, whom she had spoken with once. She identified the nightgown and panties collected as the clothing the victim was wearing after the attack.
The girl’s mother testified that the police showed her two photographs of Calvin Willis and asked what kind of car he drove. She told them that Willis had been in her house before, he was known to wear a cowboy hat, she had seen him in boots similar to those described by her daughter, and that she did not influence the victim in thinking that Willis committed the crime. Her initial testimony did not include the victim saying anything about a cowboy hat. She later testified that the victim mentioned a cowboy hat and beard, then that her daughters told her about the hat and boots, and finally that she overheard the victim telling her mother that Willis had been to the house.
A neighbor testified that her dogs had started barking that night, prompting her to look out her window between 1:30 AM and 2:30 AM. She saw a blue car with a black stripe drive by her house. A defense investigator’s report indicatee that this neighbor was interviewed a few days after the crime and did not report any unusual noises or vehicles.
Police testimony also differed with regard to the photographic identification. After being released from the hospital, the victim was taken to police to be interviewed. The victim’s answers had to be translated by her mother. An investigator testified that she showed the victim a lineup that included Willis’s photograph because the victim had said that Calvin was the attacker. Her mother provided the last name of Willis. The victim’s mother testified that Willis’s name did not come up before the lineup. Upon further questioning, however, she testified that the victim had said Calvin did it before they were taken to the police station and that he had been wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. She went on to testify that she knew the name Calvin Willis before going to the police station because neighbors told her he could have committed the crime.
The victim testified that she was told to pick the men in the photographic lineup that did not have a full beard. She also testified that she did not pick anyone from the lineup and that Willis’s picture was not part of the array. Her testimony includes a statement that Calvin was standing above her when she awoke, but the victim never made an in-court identification of Willis.
The doctor that examined the victim testified that he collected the rape kit and identified non-motile sperm on a slide.
The Northeast Louisiana Crime Laboratory performed conventional serological testing on the rape kit evidence. Blood was identified on the victim’s panties. Seminal stains were found on the nightgown. Testing of the seminal stains revealed blood group O markers. The victim is a type A secretor and Willis is an O secretor and, therefore, could not be excluded as a contributor to the stain. Seminal fluid with blood group O markers was also found on the bedspread. Willis was excluded from being the contributor of various hairs recovered from the bedspread. Blood was found on the boxer shorts that could not exclude the victim. No seminal fluid was detected on the vaginal swab.
From the time he was arrested, Willis denied having anything to do with the crime. He was known in the neighborhood because he used to live there and still had family residing there. He had friends in the neighborhood that he often visited.
Willis’s wife testified that he had returned that night shortly before midnight and that they had spent the whole night together. She also testified that she often bought clothes for him and that his waist size was 29. Further, he had his boxer shorts on when he returned that night.
Willis himself testified that he had dropped off his friend and returned home before midnight. His description of the clothes he was wearing that night did not match those described by any of the three girls. In the past, he had been to the house where the crime occurred and all three girls had seen him several times, but he was not there and did not see the victim on the night of the crime.
The jury did not believe Willis’s alibi. He was convicted in February 1982 of rape and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Though he presented evidence that the girls had named another man who had stopped by the house that night wearing clothes similar to the victim’s description, Willis’s postconviction motion was denied. In 1998, his case was accepted by the Innocence Project. Evidence was located in the clerk’s office of the Caddo Parish District Court. The nightgown, rape kit, and boxer shorts were submitted to Forensic Science Associates for testing. No probative biological material was identified on the nightgown due, perhaps, to degradation. Results were obtained from mixed samples found on the boxer shorts and the fingernail scrapings from the rape kit.
Testing of the material found under the victim’s fingernails revealed two sources of DNA, one male and one female. The female portion matched the DNA profile of the victim.
Testing of the blood found on the boxer shorts revealed a mixture of DNA profiles. The victim’s profile matched that of the major contributor of the stain. Two other profiles, at least one of which was male, were obtained. Another mixture was detected on the fly section of the boxers. The primary contributor to the non-sperm portion of that sample was a male. The sperm fraction of that sample revealed the profiles of several males.
Importantly, the profile of the male contributor to the fingernail scrapings is compatible with the male profile from the blood stain mixture on the boxer shorts, the non-sperm fraction of the mixture on the fly, and one of the male profiles from the sperm fraction on the fly.
Calvin Willis was excluded from being a contributor to any of the samples.
Prosecutors have decided not to re-try Willis. On September 18, 2003, he was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and was greeted by his family and long-time advocate Janet Gregory. Willis had spent more than 21 years in prison for a brutal rape that he did not commit.