Muskegon County Public Defender on Willis’ guilt: ‘I’ll find out in heaven’

Jeffrey Willis' Public Defender Fred Johnson, during his closing statements on the eighth day of Willis' murder trial on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017, at the Muskegon County Courthouse in Muskegon, Mich. Willis is charged with open murder for allegedly shooting and killing Rebekah Bletsch who was jogging along a road in rural Muskegon County in June of 2014. (Joel Bissell | MLive.com)

MUSKEGON, Mich. -- After Jeffrey Willis was found guilty Thursday in the 2014 premeditated murder of Rebekah Bletsch, FOX 17 talked with Willis' defense attorney.

Willis was found guilty of first-degree murder and felony firearm in the June 29, 2014 killing.  Bletsch, 36, was shot and killed while jogging near her home in Muskegon County.

"I don't know the person that was convicted of this crime today," Muskegon County Chief Public Defender Fred Johnson said of Willis on Thursday, shortly after the verdict was announced. "I don't know, I've never met that person. So on behalf of the person that I do know, it was disappointing and frustrating... We knew there was a good possibility it was going to happen."

When asked if Johnson believes Willis committed the murder, he said:

"I'll find out in heaven. He tells me he didn't do it.  We don't need that to function; I am his mouthpiece. I don't need to believe that he's innocent or guilty, that's something I usually keep to myself. Back when I'm in church praying on it, I keep that to myself.  But he tells me he didn't do it, and he's my client, and I'm going to proceed as if that were the truth."

Asked how that affects him as a person and a lawyer, Johnson replied "You put it in a silo."

The Bletsch case was so high profile, they had to build a jury pool of more than 320 people just to seat a fair jury in the county. Johnson says defending clients, however unlikable, culpable, or even "creepy" they may be, is a crucial piece of the judicial system.

"A lot of people wonder, how can you defend these guys? This one, the allegations are absolutely horrific, they're the worst I've ever seen in my entire career," Johnson said. "That's the oath I took to be part of this system, to be part of the greatest justice system in the world. Everybody plays their part and then justice is done."

It's justice in a case that Johnson says he can't shut off at home.

Rebekah Bletsch

"I sleep and I dream about this stuff," he said. "Matter of fact with this case I've had dreams in color, which I never do."

It's also a case that marks what Johnson called in his closing argument a "great moment."

"We demonstrated that a person who's vilified and frightening and hated by the community, and has no money, gets a fair trial in Muskegon County," Johnson said.

“The great moment [Thursday] is the match is now fair. And you can’t say that in many places around the country, not just around the state but around the country," he added. "This was the first time in my career a situation of this caliber has ever occurred where I didn’t feel that going in there they got us outnumbered. They didn’t have us outnumbered. We were able to provide Mr. Willis a fair trial, a just trial. He got justice.”

Willis is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 18 and faces life in prison without parole.

FOX 17 is also speaking with Muskegon County Prosecutor DJ Hilson after earning a conviction in this case.  We'll have more on that later Friday.