Twenty-one Years in Prison, Seven Free
This week marks the seventh anniversary of Calvin Willis’ exoneration in Louisiana. After spending more than 21 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, Willis was officially exonerated on September 23, 2003.
In February of 1982, Willis was found guilty of raping a ten-year-old girl in Shreveport, LA, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Throughout the investigation, Willis firmly maintained that he was innocent. He had an alibi and his wife and friends could corroborate. When he heard that the police were looking for him, he voluntarily presented himself for questioning, certain that he would be done in no time – after all, he was innocent. But, at the end of a long and suspect interrogation, eyewitnesses identified Calvin as the assailant
Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in this country, contributing to 75% of convictions later overturned by DNA testing. The eyewitnesses to the rape, who identified Calvin Willis as the perpetrator, provided inconsistent testimonies throughout the investigation and trial. The victim herself testified that she had seen Calvin Willis standing over her just before the rape occurred, yet she was unable to identify him in court. There had been two other girls, sisters who were 7 and 9-years-old, staying in the house at the time of the rape. One of them testified that she had not seen the perpetrator’s face, but noticed that he was wearing cowboy boots. During the trial, the girl identified Willis by his boots, although he had been wearing beige shoes at the time of his arrest. The victim’s mother wavered in her testimony as well, and so did the police investigator.
These testimonies, despite their jarring tenuousness, consolidated Willis’ conviction. His case speaks to our justice system’s acute and chronic shortcomings, and to the urgent need for reform. The Innocence Project
recommends several procedures that have been proven to reduce the number of misidentifications nationwide
Inaccurate identifications shatter innocent lives and strip men like Calvin Willis of the most basic human and civil rights. They also derail criminal investigations and allow the true perpetrators to run free. In the state of Louisiana, where Willis was wrongfully convicted, there have been ten exonerations in total. Witness misidentification has been a factor in every one of these cases.
Calvin Willis’ case has heightened national public awareness of the injustice of wrongful conviction. In late 2007,
GQ Magazine published a dramatic 16-page article
entitled “The Wronged Man”, about Willis, the stages of his arrest, imprisonment and fight for freedom, and the different characters that helped and hindered him along the way. On January 17, 2010, Lifetime channel premiered an original movie with the same title. The media coverage of Willis’ case reflects expanding and ongoing efforts to rectify wrongful convictions and implement systemic changes that will prevent future ones.
Read about these reforms
study the many cases that have not been so widely publicized
In March 2008, Willis reunited with an old friend and fellow exoneree, Rickie Johnson. The two men met in the early ‘90s at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where they were both serving life sentences for crimes they did not commit. They were both victims of witness misidentification, and both enlisted the help of the Innocence Project in their struggles to regain their freedom. A video recording of their reunion reveals an unusual bond, one forged by common suffering, tremendous resilience, on a shared willingness to live and to appreciate what the future may still hold.
At one point, Willis recalls his release to Johnson: “They took the shackles off my feet, and then they took the shackles off my hands, and they just rose up. And I was saying to myself, ‘Boy, this feels good.’”
Other exoneree anniversaries this week:
, Texas (Served 3.5 years, Exonerated 9/21/94)
, Florida (Served 18 years, Exonerated 9/21/07)
, Montana (Served 8 years, Exonerated 9/22/97)
, California (served 10 years, Exonerated 1994)
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