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Jury selection for Willis trial moves forward; third day needed

By Jon Mills/WZZM-TV • Oct 18, 2017 at 8:30 PM

MUSKEGON — After two full days of jury selection, there is still no jury to hear the case against Jeffrey Willis.

He's the man charged with the June 2014 murder of Rebekah Bletsch, who was shot in the head while jogging along Automobile Road in Muskegon County’s Dalton Township.

The process of reducing a pool of 130 jurors down to around 50 started Tuesday morning. The remaining jurors in the pool were asked to report back to the Muskegon Hall of Justice on Thursday morning.

The Muskegon Circuit Court called more than 320 county residents as potential jurors. So far, only the first group of 130 were required to report to the courthouse. They were sequestered on the sixth floor of the courthouse for most of the day.

They are being called into the courtroom individually and questioned by Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson and Willis’ attorney, Frederick Johnson. The judge is also asking each one if they have significant conflicts that would prevent them from serving as a juror on a trial that may last three weeks.

For the first time in court, defendant Jeffrey Willis is wearing a suit and tie. It appears he's also recently had a hair cut.

Cameras are not allowed to record jury selection.

Willis is also charged in the kidnapping and murder of Jessica Heeringa in April 2013. Her body has never been found. He is also charged with the kidnapping of a teen girl who told police she escaped from his van.

Most of the potential jurors are being asked if they can be fair and follow the judge's instructions. All have said yes, but for some there's been hesitation in answering.

Complicating matters for jury selection is that the crimes Willis is charged with received significant attention by the media and social media.

The judge, prosecutor and public defender want to know if potential jurors know any of Willis' three alleged victims. If seated as a juror, they will be asked to make a decision based on evidence presented at trial and ignore any information they may have learned outside of court.

Cooley Law School professor Curt Benson said jury selection in this case is complicated by the circumstances surrounding Bletsch’s death.

"It is a random, particularly sad, brutal crime,” he said. “From a defense point of view, I think it is difficult to tamp down the natural emotions that rise up in a jury and try to get them to focus rationally on just the evidence and try to keep the emotions at bay."

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