Former prosecutor talks challenges in Heeringa case

Posted at 6:21 PM, Sep 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-21 18:21:59-04

MUSKEGON COUNTY, Mich. --  In most murder cases, prosecutors depend on autopsy results to show how the victim died and make connections to the alleged killer. However, murder cases involving missing victims obviously present more difficult challenges.

"When you are prosecuting a 'no body' case, it takes a long time to put it together. You do not want to be premature when issuing a charge because a prosecutor has one shot," Gardner said.

Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson has just one shot to get a conviction against Jeffrey Willis in the disappearance and murder of Jessica Heeringa. If he fails, Gardner said the prosecutor can't bring charges again. That's known as double jeopardy.

But without a body, the former assistant prosecutor (now defense attorney) said there's no autopsy or clear cause of death. That makes it harder to prove Heeringa is dead and more difficult to identify her killer.

Gardner said, "This isn't something that's new. It's just more difficult. But they can establish it through what's called circumstantial evidence."

He adds that some of the factors that will help prosecutors include the length of time she’s been gone, the fact that she left behind a young child, and that cell phone records showing she never used her phone after she disappeared.

"You would look at all of those factors, and it would be reasonable to infer that person is no longer with us - that that person is deceased," Gardner said.

To prove Willis is behind her death, Gardner said it'll take other circumstantial evidence to make that connection for jurors.

Other West Michigan cases face and have faced similar challenges.

Venus Stewart's husband was convicted of killing her in 2010 in St Joseph County. In 2011, Kate 'Baby Kate' Phillips disappeared. Her father Sean Phillips is accused of killing her. Unlike Heeringa, Gardner said there appears to be some motive in those cases since the victims knew the suspects. Like Heeringa, both of their bodies have never been found.

"From my experience in the prosecutor's office where we have prosecuted 'no body' cases," Gardner explained, "that people who go to these lengths, that they are eventually going to be found and the case will be prosecuted... if the evidence is strong enough without a body."