On June 12, 1994, a husband and wife were confronted by a lone gunman demanding money as they emerged from their car after pulling into their driveway around 2 a.m. in Jackson, Mississippi.
The husband hesitated and the gunman shot him in the right leg with a pistol. When he repeated the demand to the wife and she said she had none, he forced her behind a tree in the yard and raped her.
“I could have killed both y’all,” the assailant said as he departed.
On June 16, four similar robberies of families occurred on a single night. In each case, the victims were approached in their driveways, the men were shot in the leg and the robber took what money was offered. There were no other sexual assaults, but one of the men shot in the leg, Carl White Jr., died.
Eight days later, on June 24, police arrested Cedric Willis, a 19-year-old high school dropout with a newborn son who was 60 pounds heavier and several inches shorter than the description provided by the victims. Willis protested his innocence and demanded to be put in a lineup.
Police did put him in a lineup, but in the first position and all others in the lineup were men wearing green-and-white jail garb. Willis was still wearing the white t-shirt and shorts he was wearing when he was rousted from his bed and handcuffed.
All of the victims of the attacks gathered together to view the lineup and later were individually questioned by police. The rape victim and White’s wife and daughter identified him, but none of the other victims did.
Willis was indicted on Oct. 11, 1994 on charges of murder, aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder. The state said it would seek the death penalty.
Willis gave blood for DNA testing and the results eliminated him as the rapist in the first crime. Further, two hours before that first crime, Willis was at a hospital in the maternity ward watching his son being born.
His trial did not begin for three years. At first the case was assigned to Hinds County Circuit Judge William Coleman. The prosecution moved to bar the DNA evidence from trial, but Coleman denied the motion. Before the trial began, however, Coleman retired and the case was assigned to a newly appointee, Judge Breland Hilburn. The prosecution renewed its motion to bar the DNA evidence and Hilburn granted it, though the state did drop the rape charge.
Moreover, Hilburn also barred evidence from the other robberies where the victims had failed to identify him as well as any evidence regarding the seriously flawed lineup procedures.
The trial finally began in July, 1997, and the prosecution case was almost solely based on the eyewitness identifications because the forensic evidence and any evidence of the other robberies had been excluded.The jury never heard that ballistics tests on recovered bullets shows that the same gun had been used in all the attacks.
On Sept. 11, 1997, the jury convicted Willis on all counts and the following day he was sentenced to life plus 90 years. He was taken to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as the Parchman Farm. For the next four years, he was kept in solitary confinement.
Willis’s motion for a new trial, filed with the trial judge, Breland Hilburn, sat in the judge’s chambers ignored for several years.
In 1998, he read about the Innocence Project in New Orleans and wrote a letter to enlist their assistance.
In 2001, Willis was transferred from solitary to the general population at Parchman. The Hinds County Circuit Court realized his appeal had never been decided, so the county appointed a public defender who was joined by the Innocence Project. The legal team filed a motion for a new trial, citing the exclusion of relevant evidence and evidence of mishandling of the identification of Willis. In 2005, Judge Hilburn granted Willis a new trial and on March 6, 2006, the state dismissed the charges after the new judge assigned to the case said the evidence that had been excluded at the first trial would be admissible in the second trial.
Willis later filed a wrongful conviction lawsuit. In 2011, he was approved for state compensation up to $50,000 for each of the 12 years he was imprisoned.
– Maurice Possley