Judge rejects motion to close Willis hearing in Heeringa murder

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

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The preliminary examination for the man charged with murdering Jessica Heeringa will be open to the public and media.

Jeffrey Willis is accused of murdering Heeringa in April 2013 and 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.

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’ lawyer filed a motion to close the preliminary exam, saying there was a danger of prejudice if the hearing remained open.

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.

In a four-page opinion issued Wednesday, Judge Raymond Kostrzewa denied a motion from Willis’ defense team to close the hearing, saying they “failed to demonstrate a ‘substantial probability’ that the accused’s right to a fair trial will be prejudiced” by the publicity.

Kostrzewa cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the press’ First Amendment right of access applies to preliminary hearings.

>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation

“The right to an open public trial is a shared right of the accused and the public, the common concern being the assurance of fairness,” Kostrzewa concluded.

In court earlier this month, Willis’ lawyer 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.

However, the judge said much of the evidence the defense referenced was already presented at Willis’ preliminary exam in the Bletsch murder case.

>>PDF: Court opinion in closing Willis hearing

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

“Incidently, despite the fact that these investigations have garnered much attention from the media, the defendant never moved to close the Bletsch proceedings to the public and press,” Kostrzewa wrote.

He also said the case has been so heavily publicized that closing a single preliminary examination will not resolve the issue the court will face while selecting an objective jury.

“The collective press has already and will likely continue to cover these cases very heavily,” Kostrzewa added.

He said Willis’ defense does have other legal options to ensure a fair trial, including asking to move the trial to another venue and raising objections to the admissibility of evidence before the preliminary exam.

Kostrzewa pointed out that juries are also repeatedly instructed to disregard news media accounts.

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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Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation