Judge to decide whether to ban media, public from Jeffrey Willis hearing

Jeffrey Willis, Jessica Heeringa
Left: Jeffrey Willis. (June 22, 2016) Right: Jessica Heeringa (Undated courtesy photo).

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A move to ban media and the public from the courtroom during the preliminary hearing of accused killer Jeffrey Willis is in Judge Raymond Kostrzewa’s hands.

Jeffrey Hilson
Jeffrey Willis seems to smirk at prosecutors as he enters a courtroom on Sept. 20, 2016 to be arraigned on charges of kidnapping and murder in the death of Jessica Heeringa.

Willis, 46, of Muskegon Township, is accused of murdering both Heeringa, 25, in April 2013 and 36-year-old Rebekah Bletsch in June 2014, as well as the attempted abduction of a 16-year-old girl in April of this year. The teen was able to escape, and it was her report that led investigators to Willis. He was arrested in May.

Rebekah Bletsch (Source: Facebook)
Rebekah Bletsch (Source: Facebook)

Willis was in the courtroom for Monday’s hearing, according to lawyer Conor Dugan of Warner, Norcross and Judd, who is representing WOOD TV8 and other media outlets.

“In this case, he’s already been very negatively tried in the court of public opinion and continues to be so,” Willis’ lawyer said.

He argued there is a danger of prejudice against Willis because the hearing would introduce evidence that may ultimately be excluded from the trial. He said publicizing that evidence may also taint Muskegon County’s jury pool.

Prosecutor D.J. Hilson reminded the court that victims have the right to attend all proceedings, but said he wants a fair playing field and left it in the judge’s hands to decide how to proceed.

Lawyers for WOOD TV8, WXMI, WZZM and MLive argued transparency in the high-profile case is important and the court has power to protect the objectiveness of the jury, including changing the trial’s venue.

Dugan, WOOD TV8’s attorney, said the defense’s request is very rare.

“In researching and preparing for this case, I did not see it come up a fair amount. One of the reasons is that the legal standard is extremely high to do that because there is a right to access on the part of the press and public to a prelim. It’s not an absolute right, but it is a right that is recognized by courts and by the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said.

Judge Kostrzewa said he would review the rulings in similar cases and have a written opinion “very quickly.” Dugan said he expected the decision to be released in about a week.

jessica heeringa
Jessica Heeringa was abducted from Norton Shores on April 26, 2013.

According to court documents, Willis’ cousin, Kevin Bluhm, admitted to investigators that he saw Heeringa’s body the day after she was abducted from the Norton Shores gas station where she worked and that Willis told him he had tortured her.

Authorities say Bluhm helped Willis bury Heeringa’s body in a wooded area in Muskegon Township less than a mile from Willis’ home. However, Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson told 24 Hour News 8 investigators think Heeringa’s remains have since been moved to an unknown location. The search for her body continues.

Willis’ preliminary hearing is scheduled for Dec. 6.

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