MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — In just two weeks, Jeffrey Willis is expected to stand trial for the 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch.
But even before testimony begins, the prosecution and defense are already facing a major challenge: seating a jury.
“Normally in a homicide case, which is this, we’d bring in about 75 jurors to pick from, to pick a jury. In this case, we have plans to bring in as many as 500 people,” Muskegon County Public Defender Fred Johnson, who represents Willis, told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday.
Jeffrey Willis takes the stand during a motion hearing on Dec. 2, 2016 in Muskegon County Court.
The court has expanded the jury pool because of the massive attention given to the cases against Willis.
He’s facing multiple charges in Muskegon County, including the 2016 attempted abduction of a teenage girl who escaped, the 2013 kidnapping and murder of Jessica Heeringa, and the murder of Bletsch in June 2014.
Left: Rebekah Bletsch (Undated courtesy photo) Right: Jessica Heeringa (Undated courtesy photo).
Such a large jury pool is unlike anything the prosecution or the defense has ever seen.
“Not in 35 years,” Johnson said.
“I can say in the 18 years that I’ve done this, this is probably the first time that we’re talking about a case of this magnitude,” Muskegon Country Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said.
The plan is to bring in about 125 people on Tuesday, Oct. 17, when the trial begins. That could be enough to find the 12 jurors and two alternates. If not, the court has sent out enough notices to extend jury selection for at least a few more days.
The worst-case scenario, Johnson explained, is that the attorneys in the case are unable to seat an impartial jury, in which case one side could motion to move the location of the trial.
But Johnson and Hilson said they’re confident they’ll find the 12 people they need to keep the case in Muskegon County and keep it moving forward.
“What I’m hoping for is this case gets tried in that courtroom and not the court of public opinion,” Johnson said.
“I want somebody who says, ‘I don’t care what I’ve read about, I don’t care what I’ve seen on TV, I don’t care what social media says. I’m going to listen to the facts and circumstances that are in this case. I’m going to base my decision solely on that,’” Hilson said.
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