A Michigan man convicted of killing two women blamed sleeping jurors, defense attorneys colluding with prosecutors, and a biased press for his convictions.
Jeffrey Willis was convicted of killing jogger Rebekah Bletsch in one trial and of killing gas station attendant Jessica Heeringa in a second trial. Willis chose to speak during his sentencing hearing in the Heeringa case Monday morning in a West Michigan courtroom. He previously had been sentenced to life in prison in the Bletsch case. In that hearing, Willis famously asked to be removed from the courtroom during statements from the Bletsch family. His request resulted in a legislative change to Michigan law which now requires defendants to listen to victim impact statements in their own trials.
During Monday’s sentencing in the Heeringa case, Willis said he wanted to “finally speak up,” “set the record straight,” and release “pent-up frustration.” He declared later, “I am innocent.” Speaking carefully and in complete sentences, Willis went on to rip the system that he claims unfairly handled his cases.
Early in his statement, Willis apologized for blowing a kiss during his first murder trial. He said that the gesture was not directed to the Bletsch family, but rather to the prosecutor, whom Willis said had handed him a critical piece of evidence. Beyond apologizing to the Bletsch family for any misinterpretations which resulted from the blown kiss, Willis did not apologize to the families of either of the victims. It was unclear whether Heeringa’s family was even in the courtroom. No family member spoke. Heeringa’s mother refuses to believe that she is dead and did not attend either of the trials.
Willis continued by reminding the Bletsch family that they sought state police intervention out of a fear that the local sheriff’s department was botching the case. Willis said the Bletsch family’s sentiments were well-founded.
Willis said that a state ballistics expert perjured himself on the stand and that several police officers, whom he named, and one of whom he grew up with, knew of the perjury. Willis said a bullet which matched his gun and which was allegedly taken from the body of Rebekah Bletsch was actually planted. He accused both the state and his own attorneys of denying him access to reports which would have been critical to his defense.
Willis said that people without money, such as himself, are treated unfairly by the system.
Willis read the names of five jurors whom he accused of sleeping through his trial. He named one other juror, who he said was caught “Facebooking” about the proceedings while the case was ongoing. He said another juror from the Bletsch case sat and listened to the Heeringa case as if it was entertainment.
“They were more concerned with placing blame . . . clearly, to these [jurors], these trials were just an exercise in feudalistic justice: catch ’em, flog ’em, imprison ’em,” Willis said of the degree of intellectual rigor the jurors applied to his cases.
He accused a “clueless” local television reporter of “screaming for sound bites about panties, handcuffs, and dildos” rather than observe the norms of decorum that trials generally demand. The reporter, Heather Walker of WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, later Tweeted that it was an “interesting shout out.”
— Heather Walker (@_HeatherWalker) June 18, 2018
Willis also said that a critical eyewitness did not recognize him as the driver of the van which was connected to Heeringa’s disappearance, but that the same witness said she remembered “every face” which came into the gas station. He also pointed to a light which was inexplicably turned on and off at the gas station, suggesting someone else was involved. He further said one of Heeringa’s “ex-lovers” who was “scoping out” the gas station that night was discounted by police as a potential suspect.
“I, too, fell into this group of fantasy thinkers who thought the police could be trusted without f–king up an investigation,” Willis said. He also said a friend of his, a policeman, used to tell him of issues in the system, including missing evidence, mix-ups, and lies on official reports. He called the law enforcement system an “old boy’s network.”
Willis was arrested for the Heeringa and Bletsch murders after a teenager claimed Willis tried to abduct her as she was walking home late one night. Willis said the teen was a “scared, drug-addicted teenager with a juvenile record who I only tried to help.” The teen’s description of Willis and of his van led police to Willis, where they testified to recovering a gun and gun-related items which they then tied to the Heeringa and the Bletsch cases. Willis said that the teenager was “culpable” in the police misconduct in the case. He said the teen’s juvenile record was sealed and, therefore, could not be used by his defense team to cast doubt onto her testimony against him. That teenager testified in both the Heeringa and Bletsch cases that Willis tried to take her.
“The Constitution of the United States has been scrambled,” Willis said. He said that the system forced him to prove his innocence, rather than the other way around. Willis said “deliberate deceptions and purposeful manipulations” resulted in his conviction. He further accused his defense team of colluding with prosecutors. Willis said he had to go through three defense attorneys.
Willis teared up as he spoke of Constitutional standards for defendants and of his family for believing that all people are equal under the law, a presumption he questioned.
In a brief retort, the prosecutor said his “community is blessed” with “tirelessly-working law enforcement officials” who spent a lot of “time off” to investigate the case. “In my career,” the prosecutor said, “this man is probably one of the most dangerous men I hope to ever encounter. He shows no remorse . . . it’s clear the justice system has the right place for him, and that’s behind bars for the rest of his natural life.”
The prosecutor continued by saying, “we have successfully locked up an individual who, had he not been caught and captured, would have continued his killing.” The prosecutor concluded that he would sleep well knowing Willis would be imprisoned. The gallery in the room broke out in applause after the prosecutor’s brief statement.
Willis was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on a felony murder charge and 18-40 years in prison on a kidnapping charge.
The judge said that he would not comment on the in-court statements because he didn’t want to jeopardize post-conviction motions or appeals.
[Image via screen capture from WOOD-TV.]