Jeffrey Willis’ defense team asks for dismissal

jeffrey willis
Jeffrey Willis appears in court for preliminary hearing in Jessica Heeringa murder case. (Dec. 6, 2016)

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A hallway at the Muskegon County Public Defender office is lined with framed acquittal orders for criminal cases it has won — armed robbery, firearms, assault.

Office Director Fred Johnson, who oversees the team defending Jeffrey Willis, said he believes the accused serial killer’s name could be added to that wall.

“I think we’ve got a shot at it,” Johnson told 24 Hour News 8 in his first public statement about the cases against Willis.  “We’ve got to overcome a lot. We’ve got to overcome a lot of inertia in terms of, if you want to look him up, look up ‘Monster of Muskegon.’ We’ve got to overcome that.”

His office is defending Willis in a kidnapping and in the murders of Jessica Heeringa and Rebekah Bletsch.

Left: Rebekah Bletsch (Undated courtesy photo) Right: Jessica Heeringa (Undated courtesy photo).
Left: Rebekah Bletsch (Undated courtesy photo) Right: Jessica Heeringa (Undated courtesy photo).

The office is starting by asking Muskegon County Circuit Judge William C. Marietti to dismiss the Bletsch murder case — a move that is expected to delay all the trials for months, well into next year, Johnson said.

>>Inside Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation

“It’s your fundamental right to defend yourself that’s being assaulted here,” Johnson said.

He said he expects his office to file similar dismissal motions in the Heeringa murder trial and for the kidnapping.

Documents filed by the office claim police and prosecutors violated Willis’s constitutional rights when they took handwritten notes from his jail jumpsuit and his cell at the Muskegon County Jail.

The head of the task force that investigated the 2013 Heeringa disappearance led one of the searches of the jail cell.

“This is clearly attorney-client privileged materials,” Johnson said. “A first-year law student could figure that out.”

Johnson said Willis’s notes included information on the kidnapping case, where he claimed to be the day in June 2014 that Bletsch was killed, an explanation for evidence found in his van after his arrest earlier this year.

The attorney said seizing the notes was like a football team stealing its opponent’s game plan.

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck and it’s waterproof like a duck, it’s a duck,” Johnson said. “You’re not required to stamp on each and every document, ‘lawyer document.'”

Taking the notes, he said,  also showed desperation.

“If it (the case) is so clear-cut, why are they looking at his notes?” Johnson said. “Why do they need to? If you had him cut-and-dried and ready for the sentencing, you’re done with him, why are you looking at his notes? I’ve been doing this for 35 years. Nobody’s ever looked at a client’s notes before. never.”

If the case isn’t dismissed, the defender said a judge could assign a new prosecutor and new detectives, though he believes that’s not enough.

“How do you know that what they learned hasn’t seeped into their notes?”  Johnson said. “And how can you be sure there isn’t some communicaiton between these two parties?”

Western Michigan University Cooley Law professor Curt Benson questions whether investigators should have taken and kept the notes. But he doubts it will lead a judge to dismiss the case.

“That’s honestly quite a stretch,” Benson said. “If these notes were indeed attorney-client privilege, it was wrong for the prosecutor to seize them, and it’s wrong for them to keep them.”

“The absolutely worst-case scenario is maybe a judge would disqualify the prosecutor’s office and ask for the (Michigan) Attorney General to come in and take over the case and order the prosecutor to not give the notes to the Attorney General.”

Either way, they expect appeals and delays, in all three cases.

“Somebody’s going to appeal it,” Johnson said. “If we lose the motion, we’ll appeal it to the Court of Appeals. If the prosecutor loses the motion, they’re going to appeal it to the Court of Appeals. If we tie, if the judge splits the baby, we’ll both appeal it to the Court of Appeals.

“This matter, I don’t think you’re going to see trial on this until September, on either of the major cases.”

The Muskegon County Prosecutor was given two weeks to file a response to Willis’s motion to dismiss the Bletsch case. That has not been filed.

Prosecutor D.J. Hilson has said neither his office nor the investigators did anything wrong.