A smiling Willis, his arms raised in victory and surrounded by family, walked out of Caddo Correctional Center shortly after he was driven to Shreveport from Angola State Penitentiary.
"It feels wonderful; wonderful," Willis said. "I waited a long time."
Willis, now 44, said his grandmother who raised him, Neralvil Newton, gave him the strength to survive 22 years at Angola. She was waiting for him at the jail, along with his children.
Willis was convicted in 1982 of breaking into a house in Shreveport and raping one of three young girls who were there alone. He received a mandatory life sentence.
Much of the case against Willis was built on a pair of underwear found at the house. Semen matched Willis' blood type, as did scrapings taken from beneath the victim's fingernails.
Recent DNA tests showed semen on the shorts and the fingernail scrapings do not belong to Willis. Much of the other evidence included statements and identifications from the three girls in the house.
Caddo Assistant District Attorney Hugo Holland said the DNA testing was not conclusive enough to prove who committed the rape.
The victim, now in her early 30's, is married and still lives
Shreveport. She is not commenting publicly on the case. Holland said
she understands the decision.
September 24, 2003
Calvin Willis, who was released from state custody Friday after DNA testing showed he didn't rape a 10-year-old girl, said he's thankful for his freedom but needs money to survive in society.
"I think I should be compensated," Willis said during a press conference at the Innocence Project New Orleans.
DNA expert Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project at the Cardozo Law School in New York and a member of the legal dream team that successfully defended football legend O.J. Simpson against murder charges, agreed.
"It's only right. Do the right thing," said Scheck, who sat beside Willis at the press conference.
Scheck said at least 17 states and the District of Columbia have wrongful-conviction compensation laws.
"Louisiana has nothing," he said, adding that Willis' case marks the 138th DNA exoneration in this country.
Scheck said previous attempts to pass wrongful-conviction compensation legislation in Louisiana have failed.
"It really isn't a lot of money, and it's not a lot of people," he said. "It's hardly going to break the bank. This is not any kind of huge windfall. It is a group of people that command attention. We're talking about innocent people wrongly convicted. If we can't pay that debt, what kind of society is it?"
The Innocent Project New Orleans said it has identified 20 wrongly convicted people in Louisiana exonerated since 1990, some because of DNA testing.
"I don't know how many more we have to get out in Louisiana before people start paying attention to this," Scheck said.
Gene Bibbins was convicted in 1987 of raping a 14-year-old girl in an East Baton Rouge Parish housing development and spent 161/2 years in prison before DNA testing determined him to be innocent. He was released from the state penitentiary at Angola in December.
"My cry is I need help," Bibbins, who lives and works in Baton Rouge but said he struggles financially, said at the press conference. "Here in Louisiana we do not have compensation. I hope and pray a bill will be passed for people like us."
Gregory Bright and Earl Truvia were exonerated and released from Angola in June after spending 27 years in prison for a 1976 second-degree murder conviction in New Orleans.
Truvia, who lives in New Orleans, said he was released from prison "barefeet." Bright, who lives in McComb, Miss., said he walked out of prison with a $10 check from the state.
"It is a tremendous struggle," he said. "I'm at a loss … wondering what's next."
Scheck said Willis, Bright and Truvia are no different from other exonerated inmates.
"They're thrown out into a world that they barely understand, and they face terrible obstacles," he said.
Dr. Laurie Lola Vollen, a California physician, created the Life After Exoneration Program this year in partnership with the Innocence Project to address the needs of exonerated prisoners.
Vollen, who also attended the press conference, said there are more than 300 exonerated inmates nationwide struggling to find jobs or job training, medical and dental care, housing and transportation.
"That is the hole most exonerees are dropped into," she said. "It doesn't have to be this way."
||Truth in Justice