MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Since the body of Rebekah Bletsch was found in June 2014, her case has been in the public eye — and next week, Jeffrey Willis will stand trial for her murder.
In every case, jurors are supposed to base their decisions only on what they hear in the courtroom during the course of a trial. That means anyone who comes in with too much information from other sources will likely not be seated.
“What I’m hoping for is this case gets tried in that courtroom and not the court of public opinion,” Fred Johnson, the director of the Muskegon County Public Defender’s Office and the man representing Willis, previously told 24 Hour News 8.
The defense has been asking for a change of venue because the investigation into Willis — also accused of trying to abduct a teen girl last spring and kidnapping and killing Norton Shores gas station clerk Jessica Heeringa in 2013 — has gotten a lot of media attention.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Complete coverage of the Jeffrey Willis investigation
Jury selection begins Oct. 17. To find an impartial jury, a pool of 500 potential jurors has been summoned. They’ll be brought in 125 at a time until 14 are found acceptable to the court, the prosecution and the defense.
But if history is any indicator, it probably won’t be that hard.
24 Hour News 8 asked former Kent County Prosecutor William Forsyth if during his long career, he ever failed to find a suitable jury in the course of regular jury selection.
“No,” Forsyth said. “In fact, the entire time I was in the office, which was 40 years, we never had a case where we had to change the venue.”
Court experts who spoke to 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday said people rarely become deeply familiar with specific cases.
“You’d be surprised how many people, no offense to the media, pay no attention to what’s in the media,” Forsyth said, adding often people in a jury pool are completely unaware the crime has occurred at all. “Which I find quite stunning, but nonetheless, there will be a lot of people who probably have not heard about it.”
Curt Benson, distinguished professor emeritus at Cooley Law School, said people generally have spotty recollections of any particular case.
“People read the headline, I think people pray for and feel sorry for the family of the victims, but they don’t really get, necessarily, into the nitty-gritty of the facts of the case,” Benson said. “They might not have a lot of details, they might be pretty vague, but they will have heard of it. That’s not going to disqualify that juror.”
West Michigan has seen some highly publicized cases in recent years: the shooting of Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Robert Kozminski in 2008, the 2011 murder trial of Doug Stewart in the killing of his wife Venus in St. Joseph County, or the spectacular trial of former Grand Rapids Catholic Central High School tutor Abigail Simon in 2015. In each case, while the seating of juries was delayed as the court was more cautious, a jury was found with no problem.
“You have to, based on what you’ve read, you simply can’t be fair, can’t be impartial or you’ve already made up your mind — that will get you disqualified,” Forsyth said.
If they can’t find 14 jurors to hear the Willis case in Muskegon County, then the judge will consider moving the venue.
But most judges conclude that simply moving a case a county or two away has little impact because everyone has access to the same information on the internet.
>>App users: Interactive timeline of Willis investigation