The saying is "innocent until proven guilty" but in some cases it's "guilty until proven innocent."
That was the case of Shreveport man Calvin Willis. His story received national attention when a movie was made about his 22 year struggle to become a free man and the paralegal who helped him. A man who lost 22 years of his life because of a wrongful conviction.
"It was a lot, it really was a lot certainly I don't regret any of it. It was definitely well worth it in the end what is a man's life worth" says formal paralegal Janet "Prissy" Gregory.
It was about 10 years ago Prissy walked out of prison with a free Calvin Willis. Willis was convicted of raping a young girl back in the early 80's. It was the tireless work of Prissy and DNA evidence that set Willis free. The trials and tribulations of Willis and Prissy struck such a chord with the public that Hollywood took notice and made a movie about it. The movie premiered on Lifetime Network back in 2010 and there was a re-broadcast of the movie this week starring Julia Ormond.
Prissy says that the movie has its limitations because they are trying to tell a 20 plus year story in about 2 hours. For those of you who have not seen the movie or do not know the whole story, it was carefully documented in the November 2004 issue of GQ Magazine. It was 1981 when Calvin Willis was accused of brutally beating and raping a 10 year-old girl and was supposedly ID'd by the young girl who Prissy says was mentally challenged.
"The mother of the child had a grudge against Willis which is portrayed in the movie, she simply told her child that Willis did it because she was angry with Willis about other things" says Prissy.
In 1982, Calvin Willis was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Shortly after that, Prissy , a paralegal, and her boss, an attorney took the case on appeal. Prissy stuck with the case even after her boss passed away.
During the trial as retold in the GQ Magazine article that Prissy says is very accurate, the writer says the trial was a bit bazaar. For instance, when the girl takes the witness stand, Judge Paul Lynch asked "do you know what an oath means, when you raise your hand to tell the truth?" The girl replied "yes."
Judge Lynch then asked "like when your mama tells you not to do something and then you go and do it?"
While on the witness stand, the girl described how she came to the idea that Calvin Willis is the one who raped her when she was shown photos of some men. She said "Brookins said to pick the one who did it to you and I said neither of them."
In other words, the police did not ask if her attacker's face was among the photos but told her to find it. Then, under cross-examination, she says that she was unable to pick a face from the lineup, that the name Calvin Willis was then suggested to her. Then Calvin Willis took the stand and he gave an account of where he was, an alibi but apparently that didn't matter. It didn't even matter that the rapist boxer shorts left at the crime scene were 11 inches bigger than Calvin's waistline. So it took 22 years of Prissy submitting paperwork. Years in which Willis sat in prison disconnected from his children. It took 22 years of Prissy submitting appeals and more importantly getting DNA evidence to set him free in 2003.
The most powerful DNA evidence was the fingernail scrapings. The victim had somebody's DNA under her fingernails because she did attempt to fight back and it was not Willis'. Something that seemed like it would never have happened because Prissy went door to door to try and raise about $6,000 so the DNA process could happen. That was around the time something called the "Innocence Project" came about and helped pay for the test.
Prissy said that the only thing she wanted from Willis for all of the work she put into helping free an innocent man was the chance to get to walk out of the prison with him.
So it's been a decade since Willis walked out a free man. Willis is now living his life out in California and Prissy says that he has reconnected with his children. Prissy has retired from being a paralegal and private detective. Now days she finds friends on Facebook and every now and then she'll catch a trial on TV.
Shreveport Police say in the case of Calvin Willis, after he was exonerated, the case of the beaten and raped girl became a cold case. It will remain open until someone is caught because it is an aggravated rape charge; a charge that has no statute of limitation.
The Calvin Willis case is part of the reason that the State of Louisiana adopted a law that pays exonerated individuals $25,000 for each year of incarceration with a cap of $250,000. As far as we know, Willis received his $250,000 for 22 years at Louisiana's Angola Prison.
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