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Sunday marks three years of freedom for Calvin Willis

Posted: September 21, 2007 3:39 pm

After serving 21 years in Louisiana prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit, Calvin Willis was exonerated on September 23, 2003, after DNA testing proved his innocence. Willis, who is one of nine people exonerated by DNA testing in Louisiana, will celebrate three years of freedom on Sunday.

Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Today: Gilbert Alejandro, Texas (Served 3 years, Exonerated 09/21/94)
Tomorrow: Chester Bauer, Minnesota (Served 9 years, Exonerated 9/22/97)

Tags: Gilbert Alejandro, Chester Bauer, Calvin Willis



New video: Louisiana exonerees reunite after 16 years

Posted: June 19, 2008 10:19 am

Rickey Johnson and Calvin Willis met in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison in the 1980s and quickly became friends. Although they didn’t discuss their cases in prison, the two men were both fighting to overturn their wrongful convictions. Willis learned about the Innocence Project and contacted us seeking assistance. When he found out that Rickey was also seeking DNA testing, he shared the Innocence Project’s address with him.

In the early 1990s, they were moved to different sections of the 5,000-inmate prison and they lost touch. In 2003, Rickey heard that Calvin had been exonerated, but he wasn’t able to say goodbye. Rickey waited for his own exoneration until 2008, when DNA test results proved his innocence of the rape for which he was serving a life sentence. He had served 25 years before his release in January. Today he says he wouldn’t be free if it weren’t for Calvin.

The two friends were finally reunited at the Innocence Network Conference in March. Watch a new video of the men’s emotional reunion, and listen as Calvin describes the moment shackles were removed from his hands and feet.

“It felt like my hands just rose up,” Calvin says.

“I know the feeling,” Rickey responds. “I know the feeling.”

Louisiana exonerees meet for the first time in 16 years [video: 04:12]

Tags: Louisiana, Rickey Johnson, Calvin Willis



Five years free, and still no compensation

Posted: September 23, 2008 5:15 pm

Today marks the fifth anniversary of Calvin Willis's exoneration in Louisiana. After serving 21 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Willis was finally released when post-conviction DNA testing excluded him as the perpetrator of a 1981 rape.
In June 1981, an intruder entered a home in Shreveport, Louisiana, where three girls (aged 7, 9, and 10) were sleeping. The 10-year-old awoke to a man standing above her. The attacker proceeded to choke her and banged her head against the wall. The victim fled to the back yard, but the perpetrator caught up, kicking her in the stomach. During the struggle, the victim lost consciousness and was sexually assaulted. Police were not contacted until the next morning, when a woman returned to the house.
Although police said one of the girls identified Willis as her attacker, the girl later said she never saw Willis’ photo and she did not identify him in court. He was also considerably smaller than the attacker described to police by the girls. A rape kit was collected from the victim, and semen from the perpetrator was identified, showing that the perpetrator must have type O blood. Calvin Willis has type O blood, as do 49 percent of African-American men in the United States. This evidence was presented at Willis’ trial to show that he could have been the attacker.

In 1998, the Innocence Project began to search for evidence in Willis’ case. DNA testing on items from the crime scene proved that another man was the attacker and led to Willis’ release on September 18, 2003. He was officially cleared on September 23, 2003.
Upon his release Willis said, "People don't know what exonerated is. 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." Two years after Willis was exonerated, Louisiana passed a law compensating the wrongfully convicted for $15,000 per year served, up to a maximum of $150,000. (The federal standard is $50,000 per year.) Willis, however, has yet to be compensated.

Watch a video interview with Willis and his friend, exoneree Rickey Johnson, here.

Find out if your state offers compensation and how you can help here.
Other exoneration anniversaries this week:

Monday: Chester Bauer (Served 8 Years, Exonerated 9/22/1997)

Saturday: Frederick Daye (Served 10 Years, Exonerated 9/27/1994)

Tags: Calvin Willis, Exoneree Compensation



Art and Injustice

Posted: July 10, 2009 10:49 am

By: Dan Bolick, Artist & Retired Art Teacher
Export, Pennsylvania

[Editor’s Note: This is the second part of Dan Bolick’s post on his artistic process in painting portraits of exonerees for an exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum. Part one is here, and more details on the exhibition are here. At left is Bolick’s portrait of Michael Graham, who was cleared after 14 years on death row. Part one of Bolick's post is here.]

In May 2008 I met John Thompson. JT, who spent 18 years incarcerated for a murder he did not commit – 14 of those on death row – is the founder of Resurrection After Exoneration, which provides support for the wrongfully convicted after they are released from prison. The organization has built an incredibly inspiring and cooperative community.

I showed JT some photos of my portraits and explained my project to him. He was enthusiastic about it and began to contact other exonerees who would allow me to do their portraits. During my first trip to New Orleans I met with and photographed five of the ten men I would eventually paint.

Ryan Matthews spent 5 years on death row for a murder he did not commit before DNA testing proved him innocent.  He was rather quiet and said he had found peace.

Dan Bright works with at-risk youth in New Orleans. When I showed him photos of some of the angry youths I had painted, he said that those faces were his face when he was that age. He said that he would love to come to Pittsburgh to tell the kids his story. He told me of how he was in a parish prison when Hurricane Katrina hit. The guards ran away, abandoning the prisoners. They escaped the prison as the hurricane hit it and made their way to an overpass to await rescue. They stayed together and told their rescuers that they were prisoners. Dan spent 10 years on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Greg Bright was sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he did not commit. He was exonerated after more than 27 years. He told me that at the time when he was first incarcerated at age 20, he was totally illiterate.  He taught himself to read by sounding out the words to “The Lords Prayer,” which he found in the Bible. At age 47, when he was exonerated, he was writing his own legal briefs.

I also met Curtis Kyles, the subject of the excellent book “Desire Street.” Curtis was sentenced to death for a murder he did not commit and spent 18 years in prison, including 14 on death row. Curtis was put on trial five different times for the same murder.

I left New Orleans with sketches and hundreds of photos of these five exonerees and a feeling of being very privileged to have been allowed into their inner circle.  When I arrived back in Pittsburgh I was able to meet with Drew Whitley, who spent 18 years behind bars before DNA testing proved his innocence. He also said he would participate, and I felt the project coming together.

In October of 2008, JT called me and invited me back to New Orleans. Resurrection After Exoneration was planning to inaugurate a new building and Innocence Project New Orleans was having a fundraiser at the Downtown Sheraton Hotel with John Grisham as the keynote speaker.  JT wanted to know if I would be able to show my art work at both places over a two-day period.  Also, JT was inviting as many as 20 exonerees to the festivities who I could meet with and photograph for my painting exhibition.  I jumped at the chance!

On this trip, I met exonerees Albert Burrell, Calvin Willis, Michael Graham and Clyde Charles. Sadly Clyde died this past January. He is missed by all of the exonerees.

I painted portraits of these ten exonerees, and the show opened at the museum on June 13th with a powerful reception. I have found through this experience that most people do not wish to talk about the issue of wrongly incarcerated people. But when the issue is turned into art and these men are humanized, people become passionate and freely give their opinions. During the opening there were more than a few tears shed. Art can be very powerful.

I want to keep the project going. I hope to paint additional exonerees in the months ahead and bring the paintings to more audiences around the country, because this is a critical issue and I believe art opens to the door to an important dialogue about injustice.

Tags: Clyde Charles, Ryan Matthews, Calvin Willis



Six Years Free, Living a New Life

Posted: September 24, 2009 5:25 pm

This week marks the sixth year anniversary of the day Calvin Willis was freed from a Louisiana prison. He served nearly 22 years for a rape he did not commit before DNA testing secured by the Innocence Project led to his 2003 release.  

Eyewitness misidentification
was a principle factor in Willis' wrongful conviction. The witnesses were young girls, aged 9 and 7; the victim was 10.  Much of the case against Willis was built not only on the girls' conflicting statements as to what happened, but on a pair of underwear found at the house (some ten sizes bigger than the size Willis wore), semen, and scrapings found under the victim's fingernails that matched Willis' blood type.  DNA tests showed that the semen on the shorts and the fingernail scrapings did not belong to Willis.
It was not a family member or a friend, as in many cases, who first advocated Willis' innocence, but a paralegal formerly unacquainted with Willis. Janet Gregory spent years advocating on Willis' behalf and was instrumental in his exoneration. An upcoming Lifetime original movie called The Wronged Man, tells the story of Willis' case and his unusual friendship with Gregory.We'll have more about the film on the Innocence Blog before it premieres.

Since his exoneration, Willis got married and now lives in California. Last year, Willis was reunited with a longtime friend from prison and fellow DNA exoneree - Rickie JohnsonWatch footage of their reunion here.      

Other Exoneration Anniversaries This Week:

Gilbert Alejandro, Texas (Served 3.5 Years, Exonerated 9/21/94)
Larry Bostic, Florida (Served 18 Years, Exonerated 9/21/07)
Chester Bauer, Montana (Served 8 Years, Exonerated 9/22/97)
Patrick Waller, Texas (Served 15 Years, Exonerated 9/24/08)

Tags: Calvin Willis



"The Wronged Man" on Lifetime Movie Network

Posted: January 15, 2010 12:40 pm

“The Wronged Man,” a moving new Lifetime film, tells the story of Calvin Willis’ wrongful conviction in Louisiana and the fight to free him. The movie premieres on Lifetime Movie Network Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET and plays again Monday night, January 18, at 8 p.m. ET.

Watch a trailer here and find Lifetime Movie Network in your local listings.

Calvin Willis served more than 21 years in Louisiana prisons for a child rape he didn’t commit before DNA testing obtained by the Innocence Project proved his innocence and led to his exoneration. For 15 years, a paralegal named Janet "Prissy" Gregory advocated on Willis’ behalf, filing appeals for a new trial and raising money to pay for DNA testing. Gregory is played in the film by Julia Ormond. Willis is played by Mahershalalhashbaz Ali. Pictured above is a scene from the film with Ormond (left), Tonea Stewart (playing Momma Newton, the grandmother who raised Calvin) and Ali.

Learn more about Willis’ case. Watch an Innocence Project video of Willis' reunion with long-time friend and fellow exoneree Rickie Johnson.

Airing with the film is a new Public Service Announcement featuring Julia Ormond on wrongful convictions and the work of the Innocence Project. Watch the PSA here.

Did you see the film? Share your thoughts with other viewers here.

Tags: Calvin Willis



Twenty-one Years in Prison, Seven Free

Posted: September 24, 2010 3:08 pm

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 nationwideInaccurate 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 articleentitled “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 and 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.’”

Read more on Willis’ case.

And watch the video of his reunion with friend and fellow exoneree Rickie Johnson.

Other exoneree anniversaries this week:

Gilbert Alejandro, Texas (Served 3.5 years, Exonerated 9/21/94)

Larry Bostic, Florida (Served 18 years, Exonerated 9/21/07)

Chester Bauer, Montana (Served 8 years, Exonerated 9/22/97)

Frederick Daye, California (served 10 years, Exonerated 1994)

Tags: Calvin Willis



Exonerees Face Ongoing Hardship without Compensation

Posted: June 16, 2014 4:40 pm

Tags: Minnesota, Rickey Johnson, Calvin Willis, Exoneree Compensation