The Jeffrey Willis cases: A ‘quarter-million dollar’ defense

Jeffrey Willis
Jeffrey Willis in court on Dec. 6, 2016.

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — The trials for suspected serial killer Jeffrey Willis haven’t even started in Muskegon County. But the costs to taxpayers already are starting to add up.

Willis is accused of killing Jessica Heeringa in 2013, Rebekah Bletsch in 2014 and kidnapping a girl this year.

Muskegon County Public Defender Director Fred Johnson, whose publicly funded office is defending Willis, said the cases are taxing his office.

“This is probably the most significant case that the county has ever had, fortunately, because the allegation is serial murder,” Johnson said Tuesday.

Four of the public defenders office’s nine criminal lawyers are working the different Willis cases, along with interns. Then, there are investigators and, soon, expert witnesses — all on the county tab.

>>Inside Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation

“The honest truth is it’s taxing the prosecutor as well,” Johnson said. “This is a very expensive, very talent-demanding operation.”

Johnson orchestrates the defense behind the scenes.

“There isn’t a day that goes by when we don’t have two or three conferences about this case.”

He said it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cost of the defense because the attorneys would be paid either way.

“If this guy were to go out and hire a lawyer to do the work for him that we’re doing for him, he’s going to spend probably about a quarter-million dollars to get it,” he said. “He’s not going to get cheated. He’s going to get due process. He’s going to get great representation, and justice is going to get done.”

Johnson said he’s already told his boss at the county that he might need a boost to his $1.4 million budget.

“I’m going to do whatever possible to avoid that outcome,” he said.

That includes pushing more work onto his other attorneys. He expects to cut into travel and training.

But, he said, other defendants won’t suffer.

“The lawyers will suffer. The lawyers will end up taking a lot heavier caseloads than they normally would, which means a lot more weekends, which means a lot more late nights.”

“It’s not for him that we do it,” he said of Willis. “It’s for the rest of us. It’s for the innocent people that get the same defense. We don’t differentiate between which ones we think are guilty or innocent. We give them what we fought for in wars. We give them what we vote for in our elections.”

He acknowledged the cases will be difficult if they reach juries.

“Is this really proof beyond a reasonable doubt, or is this something they want you to be afraid of?” he said. “Let’s face it, you’re sitting on that jury and one of the things you’re thinking about is, ‘I’ve got kids at home and this man, if I say not guilty, this man goes free and what if?’ That’s only human.”