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Rusty Willing

Other Illinois Child Sex Abuse Exonerations
On July 12, 2016, an eight-year-old girl in Quincy, Illinois, was asked by her mother if anyone had ever touched her inappropriately. The girl, known in court papers as B.K.L., said that about a year earlier, in May 2015, she had woken up in the middle of the night and found her mother’s boyfriend, Rusty Willing, standing over her with his hand in her pants.

The mother, referred to as Stephanie, called the Quincy police department the next day and gave a statement. Two days later, on July 15, 2016, B.K.L. spoke with an investigator at the Child Advocacy Network, a social-services agency in Quincy. The girl told the investigator that Willing had tried to touch her but that he “didn’t succeed.” The investigator would later note that the phrase “didn’t succeed” seemed like an adult way of phrasing things, perhaps suggesting that B.K.L. had been coached on what to say.

Willing, who was then 35 years old, and Stephanie had been in a frayed relationship for nearly two years. They had broken up around the time of the alleged incident, then gotten back together, only to break up for good just before B.K.L. was said to have reported the alleged abuse. The Quincy police arrested Willing on August 17, 2016 and charged him with predatory criminal sexual assault of a child.

Prior to the trial in Adams County Circuit Court, Willing’s attorney and prosecutors argued over the admissibility of several pieces of potential evidence. This included potential testimony about Willing’s criminal record; he had been convicted as a juvenile, in 1994, of sexual abuse, and also in 2011 of aggravated battery. Uncharged conduct in the 2011 conviction involved allegations that he touched the breast of a 16-year-old girl. Stephanie testified at the pre-trial hearing that her father had told her about Willing’s juvenile conviction in June 2016, and that was why she asked B.K.L. about inappropriate touching. Willing’s attorney tried to impeach Stephanie by introducing her social media posts from the period before she went to the police, which appeared to show Stephanie’s anger at Willing for breaking up with her and then quickly dating another woman.

At the end of the pre-trial hearings, a judge ruled the state was allowed some leeway to introduce this material. He said prosecutors could bring up some aspects of the 2011 conviction but not allow any mention that it had resulted in a prison sentence. He also ruled that prosecutors couldn’t directly bring up the 1994 juvenile conviction, but would allow Stephanie to describe her conversation with her father, as a way of explaining her decision to ask B.K.L. about inappropriate touching.

The trial began in early November 2016. Stephanie was the first witness. Four minutes into her testimony, she said she started dating Willing “right after he got out of prison.” Willing’s attorney objected and asked the judge to declare a mistrial. The state opposed this move; a prosecutor said he was equally surprised at Stephanie’s testimony, because she hadn’t phrased it that way during the pre-trial hearings.

The judge declined to declare a mistrial and told the jurors to disregard that statement. “Just forget you heard it,” he said. “Put it out of your mind. I’m capable of doing that, and I’m asking that you do that also, okay?”

Later on, Stephanie testified that her father, in an apparent reference to the 1994 incident, told her that Willing “had been in trouble previously for molesting another little girl.”

B.K.L testified that Willing had tried to touch her vagina. She said she had been asleep when Willing tried to put his hand in her pants. When she woke up, Willing told her that he was looking for the TV remote, but she said the TV in her room didn’t have a remote.

She said her mother didn’t believe her at first but then did after “she found out some things.” During cross-examination, the girl also testified that Willing did not get his hand down her pants and did not touch her vagina.

Willing testified and denied touching or trying to touch the girl. He also said the girl didn’t have a television in her room at the time of the alleged incident; Willing had removed the set, which was introduced into evidence, a few weeks earlier after she scratched a heart into the screen. Willing’s brother and his daughter were living with Willing in the spring of 2015, and the niece also testified that B.K.L.’s room had no television.

The jury convicted Willing on November 7, 2016. He was sentenced on January 6, 2017 to 30 years in prison.

Willing appealed. He was now represented by Curtis Lovelace, a former prosecutor who had been charged and acquitted in 2017 of murder in his wife’s death. Willing’s appeal asserted that the judge at the pre-trial hearing and the trial judge had each made substantial errors that violated Willing’s right to a fair trial.

According to the appeal, the judge who had presided over the pre-trial hearings had erred by allowing Stephanie to tell jurors about her father’s statement that referenced Willing’s juvenile conviction. Second, the trial judge had erred by not declaring a mistrial after Stephanie told jurors that Willing had been in prison.

On October 24, 2018, the Fourth District Appellate Court in Illinois ordered a new trial for Willing. In its ruling, the court said it was wrong to allow the hearsay evidence about Willing’s juvenile record. The court said the statement’s “prejudicial effect substantially outweighed its probative value.” There were other ways to elicit information about Stephanie’s motives for asking questions about inappropriate touching, the court said, and they should have been used.

The court also said the trial judge should have declared a mistrial or at least taken the matter under advisement to see how the events played out in the courtroom. His cure for Stephanie’s statement, a limiting instruction, was inadequate; the judge had thought the instruction was sufficient because much of the information would be heard anyway if Willing testified. But, the appellate court noted, that reasoning created an inducement for Willing to testify, interfering with his choice on the matter.

Pending retrial, Willing was released from prison in December 2018.

His retrial began in June 2019 but ended in a mistrial after a prosecution witness referenced Willing’s first trial.

The third trial began in June 2020. This time, Willing tried to bolster his defense through the use of an expert witness who was prepared to criticize the interviewing technique of the child-abuse investigator. That witness was not allowed to testify, but the investigator’s methods – including her tendency not to ask open-ended questions – were attacked during cross-examination.

Willing also had a new witness, a man who frequently babysat B.K.L. and was the girl’s primary childcare provider during the period of the alleged abuse. The man said B.K.L. never mentioned any inappropriate touching.

B.K.L. had testified that when she woke up on the night in question, Willing was above her and said he was looking for the remote. She said her television didn’t have one. Stephanie had also testified that she bought the television for her daughter, and that it didn’t have a remote. But Willing testified that he, not Stephanie, had bought the television. He said it was for his daughters, who visited him on weekends, and that the set had been taken out of B.K.L.’s room after she defaced the screen. He also said it did have a remote, and at the 2020 trial he produced the device.

On June 11, 2020, after 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted Willing.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 6/23/2020
Last Updated: 6/23/2020
Most Serious Crime:Child Sex Abuse
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2015
Sentence:30 years
Age at the date of reported crime:34
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No