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James Willis

Convicted of first-degree robbery and assault with intent to commit murder in Sacramento, California, in 1927, James Willis was pardoned and released from prison four months later when the actual culprit confessed to the crime.
On March 19, 1927, a masked man approached Robert Richardson in his Buick in Sacramento. After threatening Richardson with a .22 caliber revolver, the masked man entered the car and instructed Richardson to drive him around the city for over an hour while he sat in the passenger seat and drank whiskey. In the outskirts of the city, the intruder finally forced Richardson from the vehicle and drove off. Shortly thereafter, the intruder held up Paul Winstead, the operator of a Union Oil Station, and took about $30.00. The offender then proceeded to a service station where he shot the owner, Oscar G. Jones, three times in the arm and once in the back, after an argument about money.
Within days of the crime, the Sacramento police found Richardson’s Buick abandoned near the police station. Each of the three victims provided a description of the assailant for police, and James S. Willis, the 27-year-old son of a prominent physician, was subsequently arrested. Willis fit the description given by the victims, had a record of narcotics violations, and had been recently suspected in a burglary charge which involved whiskey and stolen .22 caliber revolvers.
In early April 1927, Willis was indicted by a Sacramento County Grand Jury on charges of first-degree robbery and assault with intent to murder during which he denied any involvement in the crime. On April 12, Willis was arraigned before Judge J.F. Pullen of the Superior Court of Sacramento County. Victims Winstead and Jones identified Willis as the offender, though Richardson did not. Willis denied his guilt to both the judge and his attorney but entered a plea of “guilty.” Convinced that his case was “hopeless,” Willis apparently “wanted to get it over with.” The Governor explained Willis’s guilty plea as follows: “Willis, realizing that, in general, he answered the description of the man who committed the offenses charged against him, confronted with his previous criminal record, faced with a burglary charge pending against him in Stockton, and being unable to satisfactorily account for his whereabouts, evidently pleaded guilty in the hope of obtaining some consideration, although maintaining his innocence at all times to his father, his attorney, and the prosecuting and investigating officers.”
Based on the identification by the victims and Willis’s plea of guilty, Willis was convicted and sentenced to 5-years-to-life on the robbery charge and 1-to-14 years on the assault charge.
Later that month, in Detroit, Michigan, Vincent Bohac walked into a police station and declared that he had shot a man the month before in California. He explained that although he did not know whether his victim had died, he wished to return to California to pay the penalty.
On May 7, Bohac arrived in Sacramento and made a complete confession. He showed police where he had buried the gun and some of the stolen goods, which were still there. All three victims, Richardson, Winstead and Jones identified Bohac as the perpetrator. Several weeks later, Bohac pled guilty to the crimes of first-degree robbery and assault with intent to murder and was sent to prison. On August 18, 1927, on the recommendation of the California Supreme Court, Governor Clement C. Young pardoned Willis, who was immediately released. However, because Willis had voluntarily entered a guilty plea, he was barred from receiving compensation.
In August of 1929, Willis was arrested on unrelated narcotics charges.
– Brennan Calinda and Dolores Kennedy
Most Serious Crime:Robbery
Reported Crime Date:1927
Sentence:5 years to life
Race/Ethnicity:Don't Know
Age at the date of crime:27
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession