Willis Fires Back | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Willis Fires Back


Former Parchman inmate Cedric Willis is suing the city of Jackson, the police department, and officers Gerald Jones, Ned Garner, Jim Jones and Joe Wade for $36 million for wrongful arrest and prosecution in a conviction that locked him away from friends and family for more than a decade.

"They cost me 12 years of my life," Willis said Tuesday. "That's 12 years that I spent in hell, when I didn't do nothing, because no one cared to find out the truth."

Willis' attorney Rob McDuff said Willis suffered false arrest, false conviction and wrongful prosecution after police pushed a sloppy case against Willis, fraught with bias, through the Hinds County Circuit Court.

McDuff alleges the officers unfairly steered the investigation toward Willis, going so far as to ignore eyewitness accounts regarding perpetrator descriptions that would have tilted the investigation away from Willis, who was then 18.

"Several witnesses to the … crimes gave information about the perpetrators, which revealed that a gang of young men were on a crime spree that evening in Jackson. Monroe Gartrell, who witnessed the second crime during the June 16 spree … told the police that he saw three men patrolling in a car and noticed a .45 caliber gun in the hand of a perpetrator. … Mike Davis, the victim to this same crime, corroborated Gartrell's account of there being three perpetrators. However, descriptions of the type of car used were never tied to Cedric Willis, who did not own a car," states the complaint, filed in Hinds County Circuit Court in July.

"…Despite the fact that evidence pointed away from Cedric Willis, the defendants nevertheless decided to focus on Mr. Willis and place him in the photo line-up."

The city had failed to give the officers "proper training and supervision in lineup procedures and all defendants were deliberately indifferent to the risk of misidentification through faulty and unconstitutional lineup procedures," McDuff alleged.

McDuff added that the city was well aware of two rounds of DNA testing that excluded Willis as the assailant in the June 12 rape and robbery, but made no move to update their investigation.

Lt. Gerald Jones is the only connected officers still on the force. Wade did not return calls. Jones, who directs the city's cold-case unit, would not comment on the suit.

Deputy City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen said he could not comment on the suit because "the lawsuit has just been filed, and the parties are still in the early stages of investigation." Teeuwissen did say the suit—essentially a holdover from the Ditto administration—is a relatively new phenomenon for the city to tackle.

"There's little guidance from existing Mississippi case law," Teeuwissen said, adding that the case was remarkable because potential defendants in the case included more than just the city and its employees.

"This is an interesting case, since it involves not only the actions of the police department, but actions of the district attorney's office, the court system and a jury, who decided to convict Mr. Willis," Teeuwissen said.

Prosecutors and judges are immune to legal actions for their decisions, though in this case, prosecutors and the presiding judge had much to do with the suppression of evidence that led to Willis' conviction.

Hinds County Circuit Court convicted Willis in 1994 for the shooting death of White, despite DNA evidence ruling him out, but Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, Assistant district Attorney Bobby DeLaughter and Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Breland Hilburn excluded the DNA evidence from the trial. The uninformed jury handed Willis a life sentence plus 90 years, while the real murderer, or murderers, remains unidentified to this day.

Hinds County reviewed Willis' case and released him in 2006 at the behest of the Innocence Project, a New Orleans-based non-profit that works to free the wrongly convicted, largely through improved DNA testing.

Former Jackson Free Press Managing Editor Brian Johnson told Willis' story in his award-winning 2006 feature, "Deepest Midnight: Cedric Willis and The Failure of Mississippi Justice".

Clarification: The above story said that Sgt. Joe Wade is still on the police force, but he left JPD several years back. Current JFP officer, Lt. Joseph Wade, is not the same person and was not involved with this case.

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