A Mississippi man who spent over a decade behind bars for crimes he didn’t commit was killed last week in a homicide in his Jackson, Mississippi neighborhood.
Cedric Willis was exonerated in 2006 and spent the past decade working as a motivational speaker, explaining to students what happened to him. He also helped register Mississippi residents to vote, according to CNN.
“He’d been working out, he was feeling good,” Emily Maw, his attorney with the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO), told CNN. Maw and Willis had developed a friendship and Maw said when she last saw Willis a few weeks ago, “things seemed to be going so well for him.”
Last Monday, Willis was shot and killed just two blocks from his home. Jackson police are investigating the fatal shooting as a homicide although they have no motive, according to spokesman Sgt. Roderick Holmes. No arrests have been made.
“Investigators have interviewed several individuals as it relates to information gathering, but no suspects have been identified,” Holmes said.
Willis’ mother, Elayne Willis, said police paid her a visit last week but said they had no new information.
“The only thing I know for certain is my son is dead. He left home and he didn’t come back,” she told CNN. “I don’t know what, why, I don’t know anything.”
Willis was victimized repeatedly by a failed system and country, Maw says.
“America hurts Black men in so many ways. Two of the main ways it does that is through the criminal justice system and the utter failure to control guns. Cedric has been a victim of both and that’s particularly tragic.”
In 1994, when Willis was 19 years old and newly celebrating the birth of his son, CJ, he was arrested and charged with the rape of a woman in an armed robbery and the murder of a Jackson man.
Those two robberies, along with several others in Jackson, had a similar MO and the same gun was used.
Victims said the suspect had a gold tooth and no tattoos. Neither description fit Willis, who had tattoos and no gold teeth. In addition, he was much heavier than victims’ descriptions, according to IPNO. Further, DNA testing ruled him out of raping the woman so prosecutors dropped those charges – although jurors never learned this.
Prosecutors still pursued other charges against Willis for a second robbery and murder and he was convicted of murder and armed robbery in 1997 and sentenced to life in prison plus 90 years.
“They knew they had the wrong man and they prosecuted him anyway,” Maw said.
He was finally cleared of all charges in 2006.