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DNA Frees Man Jailed for 22 Years

After spending nearly half his life behind bars, a Louisiana man is cleared by new testing of evidence in a 1981 rape.

September 20, 2003|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A Louisiana man was released from the state penitentiary Friday after spending nearly half his life behind bars for a rape that DNA evidence now shows he did not commit.

Calvin Willis was convicted of the 1981 rape of a 10-year-old girl in Shreveport and sentenced to life without possibility of parole. Willis, 45, has always maintained his innocence.

"I feel great about getting out of prison," Willis said in a telephone interview shortly before he was released from Angola State Penitentiary. "But to be honest, I am disappointed in the system -- the unjustness of holding me here all this time -- and I am not the only one who has suffered like this."

Willis became the 138th person freed from prison as a result of a DNA exoneration since 1988.

"There is no question that Calvin is an innocent man," said attorney Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project at New York's Cardozo Law School. He said that DNA tests done earlier this year on the two key pieces of evidence in the case cleared Willis.

But Hugo Holland, chief of the sex crimes unit at the district attorney's office in Shreveport disagreed. He asserted that the DNA tests showed only that there was "a reasonable doubt" that Willis had committed the crime. He said that because of those test results his office is now unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Willis committed the crime, and that he will not be retried.

Both Scheck and Vanessa Potkin, his co-counsel on the case, praised the district attorney's office for agreeing to Willis' release, but expressed dismay about Holland's position on Willis' innocence.

"By refusing to acknowledge his factual innocence, the state offends any notion of human decency and also places public safety at jeopardy," Potkin said, referring to her view that the real rapist is still at large.

"Calvin deserves, at the very least, an apology from the state. They should have the courage and decency to acknowledge that he is innocent. The state now has the DNA profile of the man who did this. They should use it to reinvestigate the crime," Potkin said.

The DNA testing was done by Edward T. Blake of Richmond, Calif. One of the key pieces of evidence against Willis at his 1982 trial was a pair of size 40, paisley boxer shorts left at the crime scene. Blood found on the shorts matched Willis' blood type, which is very common.

During sophisticated DNA analysis, Blake tested blood from six areas on the shorts. The female DNA found matched the victim's genetic profile on all the genetic markers obtained, according to Blake's report. The male DNA from the stains excluded Willis, Blake said. The blood is from an unidentified male -- referred to as "Unknown Male #1" in Blake's report.

Fingernail scrapings in evidence also contained DNA, some of which matched the victim's genetic profile. The rest matched the genetic profile of "Unknown Male #1," according to Blake's report.

There was no additional biological evidence that could be tested, Blake said in a telephone interview Friday. "When you look at the [biological] evidence, Calvin Wills is not in this evidence."

At the trial, the victim had difficulty identifying Willis. And Willis is considerably smaller than the description of the perpetrator given by another girl who was in the house at the time of the attack.

Earlier this week, a Caddo Parish judge, acting on a joint motion filed by the defense lawyers and the district attorney's office, awarded Willis a new trial. Then, Holland said he would not retry Willis because he could not prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Willis said he owes his freedom to the efforts of Jane Gregory, a Shreveport paralegal who doggedly worked on his behalf for two decades, and the Innocence Project. Gregory said she got interested in the case when her boss briefly worked on Willis' first appeal.

"When I left that office, there were two cases I could not leave behind. One of them was Calvin's. It was obvious he did not do it and there was no one else to help and no money," Gregory said.

Five years ago, Willis heard about the Innocence Project from another inmate. Gregory filled out a questionnaire that the Project requires of prospective clients and she attached some exhibits. Project attorneys decided Willis' case looked promising but told Willis he would have to come up with some money for the DNA testing.

Gregory said she started raising the money four years ago. "I would send it up to New York as I got it. Calvin wrote a thank-you letter to everyone, whether it was $5 or $50."

Meanwhile, Gregory said, "I kept going down to the clerk's office" at the local courthouse "to make sure we had our evidence intact."

Eventually, Scheck and Baton Rouge attorney Jim Boren asked the district attorney's office to permit DNA testing, setting in motion the events that led to Willis' release.

Scheck said that Willis' case showed the importance of preserving evidence in rape cases and of permitting inmates to avail themselves of DNA testing when biological evidence is available.

Willis said his initial plan is to live with his 85-year-old grandmother. "She is alone and she needs me," Willis said. He said he would try to find a job but expected that it would be difficult.

"I don't have an education. What am I to do -- pick up cans?" Willis asked.

The authorities "just turn someone loose. They don't give you anything. They don't compensate you," Willis said.

Last year, a Louisiana state senator introduced a bill that would have given wrongfully convicted persons $25,000 for each year they spent in prison. The bill died in committee.

"People don't know what 'exonerated' is," Willis said. "When you have been in prison for 20 years, there is a stigma. I am going to file for a full pardon from the governor."

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