West Michigan legislator successfully changes law after local injustice


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

It was not bad enough that notorious killer Jeffrey Willis could not be forced to listen to the victim impact statements following his December 2017 conviction in the Muskegon County courts for the murder of Rebekah Bletsch.

But then Willis, just as he was outside of the view of 14th Circuit Court Judge William Marietti, smirked and blew a kiss at Bletsch’s family and friends.

When court-appointed Muskegon County Public Defender Fred Johnson – formerly an attorney in Grand Rapids, as previously reported – said that it was the defendant’s “desire” not to be present, Judge Marietti, though appearing reluctant, responded that to the best of his knowledge there was nothing in the statutes that allowed him to make Willis stay.

The community was outraged.

There was some justice served when the Muskegon County Sheriff, Michael Poulin, ordered that the recorded victim impact statements be played in the police car transporting Willis to the prison in Jackson – reportedly completing the CD five times through on the trip.

But when Rep. Holly Hughes, who is term-limited as a state representative but running for senator in the area that includes Muskegon, got wind of this, she was determined that in the future there would indeed be a law requiring that convicted criminals be forced to listen to what they have done to the lives of their victims and victims’ families.

“It seemed unfair to me that a convicted murderer’s rights were more important than the right of the families to be heard,” Hughes said.

On May 23, Gov. Rick Snyder signed her bill, HB 5407, the Rebekah  Bletsch Law, making it Public Act 153 of 2018.

“I hope this legislation will help victims and their families through the healing process as they continue moving forward with their lives,” Gov. Snyder said at the time.

But there is more to the story. Hughes knew that Willis, who was also found to have hundreds of  “snuff” (purportedly real rape-and-kill) videos on his computer,  was scheduled to go on trial for the murder of another young woman. Jessica Heeringa’s high-profile kidnapping drew attention around the country, including an episode of the television show Unsolved Mysteries.

When Heeringa disappeared from her job at a gas station/convenience store in Norton Shores in 2013, there were a few clues, but very little to go on to resolve the case. There was conjecture that the 25-year-old mother of a young son left of her own accord, but what evidence there was, including a small blood stain, seemed to refute that. There were suspects everywhere, including her fiancé and the store manager.

But throughout 2016, a different explanation was emerging. Willis was originally found by law enforcement based on his attempt to abduct a female jogger, unidentified because she was a minor, who managed to jump from his van and tell her story. What investigators found in that van when they caught him, along with previous evidence, started adding up in the Heeringa kidnapping as well as in the killing of Bletsch.

The Willis trial for the murder of Heeringa, whose body has never been found, began earlier in May and resulted in a jury conviction, after only an hour and a half of deliberation, on May 16.

The sentencing hearing is currently scheduled for June 12.

“We wanted to make sure we got this law into effect before the Jessica Heeringa sentencing,” Hughes said.

The bill was introduced Jan. 11, 2018, and co-sponsored by Reps. Klint Kesto and Roger Victory. Hughes said they had already recognized the short timeframe for getting the bill passed and signed, so though there would have been many more willing sponsors, they decided to run with just those three.

In February, Bletsch’s sister Jessica Josephson and mother Debra Reamer testified before the house. “I’m very grateful to them for being willing to relive their story,” Rep. Hughes says. “It makes a huge difference when we hear from somebody who’s affected by a bill.

“And I know they feel proud that they could play a part in preventing this from happening to anyone else,” Hughes continued.

The House passed the bill on March 8, the Senate on May 10, a “concurrent” version passed the House on May 15, and it was fast-tracked for the governor’s signature.

Hughes, a Republican, says she was not surprised that it had broad bipartisan support, particularly after the hundreds of victim impact statements Judge Aquilina allowed in the Larry Nassar sexual assault trial.

The bill amends 1985 PA 87, the William Van Regenmorter Crime Victim's Rights Act, which as reported previously in these pages was a nationally groundbreaking set of bills initiated by the well-known local legislator.

Rep. Hughes says that Sheri Jones, a woman who worked with Bill Van Regenmorter and is from Ravenna in Hughes’s district, was also there at the House hearing in February.

The bill states, “Unless the court has determined, in its discretion, that the defendant is behaving in a disruptive manner or presents a threat to the safety of any individuals present in the courtroom, the defendant must be physically present in the courtroom at the time a victim makes an oral impact statement... In making its determination under this subsection, the court may consider any relevant statement provided by the victim regarding the defendant being physically present during that victim’s oral impact statement.” Another subsection amendment says the same about juvenile offenders’ victim statements.

The act takes effect immediately. The family of Jessica Heeringa will have their voices heard. And, most importantly, from now on all victims in the state of Michigan will be assured of the same right.

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