Sometimes, life will throw you screwballs, and you just have to swing hoping to make contact, instead of whiffing for a strike. Other times, life will drop a bomb right in your lap that you have no chance of defusing. How life chooses its victims will never be known, but some cases are just hard to reconcile. One such life is that of Cedric Willis of Jackson, MS. This year marked 13 years since Cedric had come home from prison. In 2006, he was exonerated of a wrongful murder and armed robbery conviction that landed him in the bing for what would’ve been the rest of his natural life. Since coming home, he has performed as a motivational speaker and helped register Mississippi residents to vote in what he called “election protection.” He had trouble holding down a steady job due to his bout with epilepsy, but he was in high spirits being on the right side of the wall. “I have an incredible sense of freedom. Every morning, I wake up happy,” he once said of his liberation.
However, Cedric’s positive outlook could not fend off fate. On June 24, as he walked home to his mother’s house in his hometown of Jackson, he was inexplicably shot and killed. He was a mere two blocks from the house. He was 44-years-old. Without a doubt a bitter ending for a tormented soul who had been dragged through the ringer by society.
To get a full sense of this true tragedy, It’s important to take a look at Cedric’s legal plight that took most of his life away from him. The saga began on the night of June 12, 1994. According to reports, a tattooless man with gold teeth rolled up on a husband and wife after they pulled into their Jackson home in the wee hours. The mysterious man brandished a gun and demanded that the couple come up off any cash that they may have. When the husband hesitated, he was shot in the right leg. The gunman then turned his attention to the wife and repeated his demand for money. When she told him she had none, the robber made the nightmarish scenario even darker by forcing the woman behind a tree on the property and raping her. As he made his way into the night, the robber told them, “I could have killed both y’all.”
Four days later, four more similar robberies took place in one single night. Like the first victims, couples were approached in their driveways, the men were shot in the leg and the robber took whatever cash they had on them. None of the other women were sexually abused, but one of the men, Carl White, Jr., died from his leg shot.
How does Cedric Willis fit into this equation. Long story short, he didn’t. Two hours before the first robbery/assault, 19-year-old Cedric was in a local maternity ward witnessing the birth of his son. He was still feeling the pride of bringing a healthy newborn into the world on JUNE 24 of that year, police arrested the high school dropout for the robberies, rape and murder that went down in the days preceding. The cops were led to Cedric, who was in bed, even though witnesses said that the assailant had gold teeth and no tattoos. Cedric had no gold teeth and he had ink on his arms. Furthermore, Cedric was 60-70 heavier and several inches shorter than the description.
Knowing he was innocent and had a clean criminal record, Cedric protested the arrest and demanded to be put in a lineup. The police obliged, but put Cedric in the first lineup position and everybody else in included donned green and white prison attire. Cedric was wearing the white tee and shorts he had on when he was arrested. All of the surviving robbery victims gathered to view the lineup and be questioned by police. Somehow, the woman who was raped, the slain White’s wife, Gloria, and daughter, Jamila, pointed out Cedric as the culprit. None of the other victims did.
On October 11, 1994, Cedric was indicted on aggravated assault, rape, robbery and murder charges. Due to the severity of the crimes, the prosecution was seeking the death penalty. There was a glimmer of hope after the rape charges were dropped due to a blood test proving Cedric’s DNA was not present for that crime. Nevertheless, Cedric had to wait for three years for his day in court on the other charges.
Initially, Hinds County Circuit Judge William Coleman presided over the proceedings. The prosecution made a motion to bar the DNA evidence that cleared Cedric of the rape from the trial. Coleman denied it. In a twist of fate, before the trial began, Coleman retired and was replaced by Judge Breland Hilburn. Again, prosecutors made a motion to ban the crucial DNA evidence. This time, the presiding judge granted it. Additionally, Hillburn barred all evidence from the other robberies where victims did not identify Cedric as well as any evidence stemming from the questionable lineup.
The trial finally commenced in July, 1997. Without the forensic evidence or evidence from the other robberies, the prosecution leaned heavily on the faulty eyewitness identifications. The ballistics tests performed on recovered bullets proving that the same gun was used in all of the robberies was never presented to the jury.
Cedric was convicted on all counts on September 11, 1997. He was spared the death penalty, but was given life plus 90 years in Mississippi State Penitentiary (a.k.a. The Parchman Farm). For his first four years in, he was locked away in solitary confinement. Cedric filed for a new trial, but that motion collected dust in Judge Hillburn’s chambers for years.
Cedric gained some hope when he read about the Innocence Project in New Orleans in 1998. Over the years, the Innocence Project has been on the frontlines of the fight to free wrongfully convicted men and women. He reached out to the organization by letter requesting their assistance.
In 2001, Cedric was sprung from solitary confinement and transferred to the general population at the Farm. By now, the Hinds County Circuit Court realized that Cedric’s appeal had never been decided, so the court appointed him a public defender. Having built on his relationship with the Innocence Project, lawyers from the organization joined in on the case. The team of attorneys cited the exclusion of relevant evidence and evidence mishandling in the motion they filed for a new trial. In 2005, Hillburn granted Cedric a new trial. On March 6, 2006, all charges were dismissed after the new judge assigned to the case ruled that previous testimony by Gloria and Jamila White was inadmissible.
With a new lease on life as a returning citizen, Cedric moved back in with his mother, Elayne Willis. Not every man or woman who comes home from a lengthy prison stay has a place to go. Fortunately, while he was away, Habitat For Humanity built Ms. Willis a new home. According to Pix 11, he made sure to have them add an extra bedroom because she knew her son would be coming home. He was welcomed into the room upon release and stayed there until his untimely death. Cedric also could feel the joy of reuniting with his 12-year-old son who was only a newborn when he went away.
Even with all of the blessings, Cedric still, rightfully, had a bone to pick with the powers-that-be that stole 12 prime years of his life that he could never get back. According to the Life After Exoneration Program, Cedric filed a $36 million lawsuit against the city of Jackson and four individuals who he held responsible for his predicament. As is common when the wrongfully convicted come for their paper for their time lost, Jackson invoked immunity for the city officials named in the lawsuit and appealed. In the end, Cedric settled for $195,000 for the lawsuit, according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Also, he was approved for state compensation of $500,000 to be paid out over ten years.
Although less than $700,000 seems like a pittance to pay for ruining someone’s life and stealing 12 years, Cedric made the best of his situation. He continued to develop a relationship with his son. He spoke with the NAACP. As alluded to earlier, he worked with the ACLU to register voters in Mississippi. He also spoke at schools as a service to local youth. He also used to help out with his cousin’s and sister’s children. Most recently, he also briefly enjoyed being a grandfather.
Alas, for whatever reason (maybe none at all), Cedric was gunned down in the streets on the 25th anniversary of his unjust arrest. Any chance he had at becoming the man he wanted to be was dashed in an instant. His killer is still on the loose and the police had no leads or any information on why it happened.
“America hurts black men in so many ways,” said Innocence Project attorney Emily Maw, who represented Cedric. “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.”