Man exonerated of murder after 12 years in prison gunned down in Mississippi

JACKSON, Miss. — A Mississippi man exonerated of robbery and murder in 2006 was gunned down on a Jackson street this week, authorities said.

Cedric Willis, 44, spent nearly 12 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit. According to the Clarion Ledger, Willis was found shot multiple times on a street corner Monday afternoon.

Willis was pronounced dead at the scene, the newspaper reported. A Jackson police spokesman said Tuesday that no arrests had been made and the motive for Willis' slaying was unknown.

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Attorney Emily Maw with the Innocence Project New Orleans, which helped free Willis from prison, described him as a "wonderful, kind, warm and hilarious person, in a good way." She told the Clarion Ledger that Willis' family called him "Bozo" because of his sense of humor.

"I'm just so sad the world doesn't have Cedric Willis anymore," Maw said.

According to the Innocence Project New Orleans, Willis was 19 years old when he was accused of two robberies that were part of a spate of crimes across Jackson. One robbery included the rape of a woman and the second ended with the June 16, 1994, murder of Carl White Jr. inside his home.

"These crimes occurred within five days of each other," the Innocence Project New Orleans page on Willis' case states. "Ballistics testing showed that the same gun was used in both crimes and in three other robberies within two hours of the murder of Mr. White. The M.O. (modus operandi) for each crime was almost identical, and the victims all gave similar descriptions of the perpetrator. The descriptions did not include tattoos but did include a gold tooth."

Willis, who was about 70 pounds heavier than the victims' descriptions of their attacker, had tattoos covering his arms, the website states. He did not have a gold tooth.

Willis also had an alibi for at least one of the crimes, the organization said on Facebook. He told authorities he was visiting his newborn son in the hospital.

Despite the discrepancies in appearance, the witnesses identified Willis as their assailant.

"However, a year after his arrest, DNA testing performed on the rape kit taken from the rape victim excluded Mr. Willis and (the victim's) husband," the Innocence Project New Orleans site says.

The rape charge against Willis was dropped, but prosecutors pushed forward with the murder and robbery charges involving White and his family, which the Clarion Ledger said included White's wife and daughter.

Jurors never heard that the gun used to kill White had been used in the other four cases, including the rape. They also never heard that the charges in the case involving the rape were dropped, the newspaper reported.

In a 1997 trial in which jurors instead heard only the testimony of White’s family, Willis was convicted.

Willis, who the Clarion Ledger said had a 2-week-old son when he was imprisoned, was sentenced to life in prison, plus 90 years. He was 23 years old.

The Innocence Project New Orleans began looking into Willis’ conviction in 2004 and, based in part on DNA evidence, won a new trial for Willis the following year. He never stood trial a second time, however, after his attorneys persuaded prosecutors to get the charges dismissed.

Both prosecutors in Willis' case, Ed Peters and Bobby Delaughter, later lost their law licenses in connection with a federal criminal investigation, the website says.

Listen to Willis talk to the Clarion Ledger in 2016 below.

Willis told the Clarion Ledger in 2016 that he spent five of his nearly 12 years behind bars in solitary confinement. He said after his release, he thanked God each day for the sunshine.

He voted for the first time upon his release, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union. He was hired by a Methodist church to do maintenance work.

He was also receiving $50,000 a year from the state since 2011 as compensation for his imprisonment, the newspaper reported.

Willis told the paper it didn’t pay to be angry about what he’d gone through.

"You can't be mad. It would do no good," Willis said.

The Innocence Project New Orleans posted a lengthy tribute to Willis on the organization's Facebook page.

"He was a proud voter, a public speaker, a sometime-fitness fanatic, an introspective soul, a devoted shopper, a son, brother, father, friend, and a first-class comedian," the post read. "Some of us at IPNO had known him most of our adult lives. We hold all of his family close to our hearts through the coming days, especially his mother Elayne, who bore so much watching her son endure wrongful imprisonment, and (his son) C.J., who was his world.

“And we will keep looking at the wonderful pictures of Cedric through the years with love and, hopefully soon, without floods of tears.”