A Jackson, Mississippi man who spent 12 years behind bars for a murder he did not commit was shot dead just two blocks from his home.
On June 24, Cedric Willis left home and never returned.
“The only thing I know for certain is my son is dead. He left home and he didn’t come back,” Willis’s mother, Elayne Willis, told CNN. “I don’t know what, why, I don’t know anything.”
CNN reported that the Jackson Police Department is investigating Willis’s death as a homicide. No arrests have been made, and no immediate motive was known.
Police arrested Willis, then 19, in 1994 after he was connected with two separate crimes: a robbery that resulted in murder and rape. CNN reported that several robberies in the area at the time had similar patterns and victims from both robberies later identified Willis as the perpetrator. However, it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.
Victims said the perpetrator had a gold tooth and no tattoos, but Willis had no gold teeth and he had tattoos on both of his arms. Willis was also reportedly 70 pounds heavier than descriptions given to authorities. DNA testing did not reveal a match in the rape case, so prosecutors dropped those charges, but Willis was tried for robbery and murder.
In 1997, Willis was convicted of murder and armed robbery and sentenced to life in prison plus 90 years, according to the Life After Exoneration Program, per CNN. Willis had a tough time in prison, as he was kept in solitary confinement for four years. His time behind bars was also difficult because he had epilepsy and would often have blackouts and seizures.
Willis continually requested a new trail, and finally in 2006, he got lucky. A judge found a previous witness’s testimony inadmissible, and the charges against Willis were dismissed. In March of 2006, Willis was freed.
Since he was exonerated, Willis invested heavily in his family, helping to take care of his cousin’s and sister’s children. He was even enjoying being a grandfather. Still struggling with epilepsy, Willis managed to take on a few jobs. He also worked with the ACLU, helping people register to become voters.
Elayne said her son was a kindhearted and loving man who wanted to help people.
She also said his wrongful conviction had a deep impact on him, but he “never ever let it show.”
“He gave me so much joy. And I’m just going to miss him,” she said.