Judge to determine if public, media allowed access to Jeffrey Willis’ hearing

Posted at 5:50 PM, Nov 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-21 18:19:15-05

MUSKEGON, Mich. — The case against Jeffrey Willis, charged with the kidnapping and murder of Muskegon area mother Jessica Heeringa, is paused until a judge determines whether the public and media will be allowed access to Willis' preliminary hearing.

Muskegon County District Judge Raymond Kostrzewa  heard Willis' defense team's motion Monday to close his Dec. 6 preliminary hearing, in which the prosecution will introduce key evidence to determine probable cause to go to trial. Judge Kostrzewa said he will issue a written opinion very shortly.

“The monster of Muskegon, there’s reports quoting I think Mr. Hilson’s use of that word," said Willis' defense attorney Brian Hosticka to Judge Kostrzewa. "The fact is, Mr. Willis is not a monster, he’s a human being, and he’s entitled to the same constitutional rights as everybody else.”

Referencing published quotes across local media, Hosticka argued to close the preliminary hearing in order to prevent tainting the jury pool.

“There is undue prejudice happening and it needs to stop," said Hosticka to FOX 17. "People need to take a breath, remember that there is the presumption of innocence in this country, and not to make pre-judgments before the case is tried.”

Yet Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson, along with two attorneys representing FOX 17 and local media, pushed for transparency and the rights of Heeringa's loved ones to be present at all court proceedings. Hilson also cited his ethics and refusal to answer many questions to the press regarding Wilson's charges in Heeringa's abduction and murder, especially those related to any evidence.

“I think the prosecutor made a good point here: there’s transparency, allowing the victim’s family to be present, allowing the public to see what’s going on in the court proceedings, and to see why the court is coming to a certain conclusion," said Conor Dugan, attorney representing FOX 17 and other TV stations.

In their motion the defense claims the negative publicity of this high-profile case has caused prejudice against Willis, and ultimately demand he receives a fair trial. The prosecution cited case law, which requires the defense meet a high burden of proof that an open court proceeding would endanger Willis.

“There is a fundamental right for the press and the public to have access to this preliminary hearing," said Dugan. "While it’s a qualified right, it’s a right that can only be overcome with a substantial showing of prejudice.”

Despite ongoing coverage, as with other kidnapping or homicide cases, Hosticka reminded the public Willis maintains his innocence in Heeringa's case.

“We’re a long way from getting to the end of this case and Mr. Willis has a defense," said Hosticka. "And my meetings with him have been professional, cordial; to me he’s been anything but a monster. He has maintained that he did not do these things, and it’s my obligation to defend him.”

Meanwhile, Willis is charged with multiple felony cases including the murder of Rebekah Bletsch. Hosticka told FOX 17 he will be requesting adjournment of the Bletsch case this week.