Wrongfully convicted man is killed 13 years after release

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A Mississippi man who spent nearly 12 years imprisoned for a wrongful conviction has been fatally shot, 13 years after his release.

Jackson police said 44-year-old Cedric Willis was killed Monday on a city street. No arrest was immediately made, and no motive was known. The shooting remains under investigation.

In 1994, at age 19, Willis was charged in two robberies in Jackson. One included a rape and the other a death. DNA testing cleared him of the rape, and he was not tried in that case. Though the crimes were likely committed by the same person using the same gun, Willis was convicted in 1997 of murder and robbery and sentenced to life plus 90 years. During the murder and robbery trial, the judge ruled that jurors could not hear about the DNA testing from the other case.

Innocence Project New Orleans investigated Willis’ case in 2004, and he won a new trial in 2005. Prosecutors joined in asking a different state circuit court judge to dismiss murder and robbery charges. Judge Tomie Green agreed in March 2006, and Willis was freed. He embraced relatives and supporters outside the Hinds County Courthouse in downtown Jackson.

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Emily Maw, an Innocence Project attorney who worked on his case, said Tuesday that Willis was smart and had a self-deprecating sense of humor.

“He had in him an extraordinary kindness rare in anyone, let alone anyone who had to bear what he had to bear,” Maw said.

A decade after his release, Willis told the Clarion Ledger that for five years in prison he was in solitary confinement and spent 23 hours a day in his cell. He said since being free, he had gone outside each day and thanked God for the sunshine. He told the newspaper he was not angry about the time he has spent in prison.

“You can’t be mad,” Willis said. “It would do no good.”

Willis said the NAACP had helped him since his release. A United Methodist church in downtown Jackson hired him to do maintenance work. The American Civil Liberties Union aided him in registering to vote, and he cast a ballot for the first time after his release from prison.

Since July 2011, the state has paid Willis $50,000 a year under a law authorizing compensation for people who have been wrongfully imprisoned.

Tom Fortner, a former public defender who helped the Innocence Project on Willis’ exoneration, said he had seen Willis a few times during the past decade.

“He was kind of a levelheaded, easygoing fellow,” Fortner said Tuesday. “He wasn’t a violent guy.”

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This story has been corrected to Cedric Willis’s sentence was life plus 90 years, not life plus 99 years.

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