MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Jeffrey Willis will spend the rest of his life in prison for the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch, but he still faces more time in front of a Muskegon County jury.
He is also accused of killing Jessica Heeringa in April 2013 and kidnapping a teen. Now, the prosecution is asking a judge to combine both those cases into one trial.
Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said one trial just makes sense.
“One way or the other, the jury’s going to hear those facts anyway,” Hilson said.
In the November trial for the shooting death of Bletsch, the jury heard all about the accusation that Willis tried to abduct a 16-year-old girl from a rural road in Muskegon County in 2016. She managed to escape and it was her report to police that led to Willis’ arrest in May 2016.
“That event and the circumstances surrounding that event opened the door to us being able to sufficiently charge the Rebekah Bletsch homicide and opened the door to sufficiently charge the Jessica Heeringa abduction,” Hilson said.
The evidence obtained following searches for evidence in the 2016 abduction case was a large part of the Bletsch trial and the prosecutor expects three-quarters of the next trial will be the same evidence used in November.
“It’s hard to try one without trying the other two,” Hilson said. “The jurors are smart enough, when instructed by the court, ‘for this particular case and these charges, this is the evidence you must consider,’ they’re going to follow those instructions.”
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation
Hilson said one trial also saves the county some money.
“That would alleviate the need to actually have a third trial and call again the same witnesses we’ve called for trial one and trial two to come back a third time,” Hilson said “And in some small way, too, the investigators that spent years and blood, sweat and tears looking to solve these cases do deserve some closure as well.”
But defense attorney Fred Johnson, who heads the Muskegon County Office of the Defender, said each case should be able to stand on its own and that while one trial may be judicially economical, it is not justice.
Before the Bletsch trial, Judge William Marietti denied the prosecution’s request to combine.
“Ultimately, even if the court doesn’t agree with me, I still intend on holding Jeffrey Willis accountable for his attempted abduction of that juvenile,” Hilson said. “I see no justification for denying the Heeringa family the opportunity for justice.”
There will be a hearing Friday in Muskegon County Circuit Court during which Marietti will consider this motion and a request from the defense to delay the trial — slated to begin in March — for more time to prepare. The prosecution opposes that motion.
>>App users: A timeline of the Willis investigation