Judge delays Willis trial for Jessica Heeringa murder

Pervasive flu season among reasons given by defense for postponement

Jeffrey Willis
Jeffrey Willis appears in a Muskegon courtroom on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.


MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Convicted murderer Jeffrey Willis will have more time to prepare for his trial in the April 2013 kidnapping and murder of Jessica Heeringa.

In a 15-minute hearing on Friday, Judge William Marietti agreed to delay Willis’ trial, which was slated to start March 6. It’s now expected to begin in early May, which was the time period public defender Fred Johnson was requesting.

In November, Willis was convicted of murder in the 2014 death of Rebekah Bletsch and sentenced to life in prison. After sentencing, Willis spent a month and a half in Jackson in quarantine, being processed by prison officials and eventually moved to a facility in Ionia.

“We got to see him one time in the 45 days he was over there,” Willis’ attorney Fred Johnson said Friday. “We just haven’t had time to communicate and prepare.”

That’s why Johnson filed a motion to push back the Heeringa murder trial. He also mentioned the Bletsch trial transcript wasn’t expected to be ready until early April, and preparing a jury pool for a case of this magnitude would take about two months.

Johnson also said the pervasive flu season could affect the jury pool.

“Quite frankly, putting 150 people in this room, all next to each other, quite frankly I think it may endanger them as well,” Johnson said.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson argued against the delay. Marietti dismissed the flu concerns but otherwise agreed with Johnson, granting the motion.

“We could start this case tomorrow. And I’m as anxious as everybody else to see the end — the conclusion, if you will — but ultimately the court makes the call,” Hilson said after the hearing.

Hilson wants to move forward faster — so he again filed a motion to combine the Heeringa murder case and the attempted abduction of a teen girl in 2016 into one trial. Hilson said much of the evidence against Willis in those cases is the same.

 

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

Marietti previously denied the same request before the Bletsch trial.

“It just makes sense,” Hilson said. “It’s going to become harder and harder to find individuals in Muskegon County who can objectively view the evidence.”

Johnson, on the other hand, wants to keep the two trials separate.

“This isn’t about economy — this isn’t about efficiency. This is about justice. And if takes multiple trials to get justice in this matter, that’s what we should do,” Johnson said.

Marietti is expected to rule on whether or not to combine the cases sometime within the next few weeks.

Willis waived his right to a trial within 180 days to allow for the delays.

 

His cousin, Kevin Bluhm, previously pleaded no contest to being an accessory after the fact in Heeringa’s murder. Authorities say he helped his cousin bury Heeringa’s body.

Earlier this month, Bluhm was sentenced to time served and released from jail.

Heeringa’s remains have never been found. Authorities think Willis moved her body later.

>>App users: A timeline of the Willis investigation