Answers were short, lots of “Yes, sirs” and “No, sirs” as Willis, charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Steven Rogers on July 4, 2011, said that somebody else did it.
The jury didn’t buy it and convicted Willis after 90 minutes of deliberations last Friday. After 50 years of practicing law, the result came as no surprise to Michael Costello, Willis’ lawyer, who predicted the result as he headed for the courtroom.
“It’s a guilty verdict – it’s too quick,” the veteran Springfield attorney told a courthouse security officer in the hallway.
Willis, 24, stood ramrod straight as Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Schmidt read the verdict. The family of Steven Rogers broke out in sobs.
If ever there was an innocent victim, it was Rogers, who was just 22 and relaxing with friends in a Grandview apartment when Willis opened fire with an AK-47. Rogers, a student at University of Illinois Springfield, had earned his associate’s degree and was studying communications.
“This is a heartbreaking case,” Costello told the jury during his closing statement. “You have a young man, educated, looking forward to the rest of his life. And he dies.”
Willis neither knew nor saw his victim, who was sitting on a couch watching a movie. The fatal bullet, fired from 320 feet through a break between trees, tore through the wall of the apartment building and into Rogers’ chest. Willis, an infantryman who served a year in Iraq but had never gotten into a firefight, told the jury that he’d been setting off fireworks at his girlfriend’s house. He wanted to shoot the rifle. His girlfriend didn’t want him shooting around her house. And so he walked to the intersection of Ridge and Stephens avenues and opened fire, in the midst of houses and apartments and businesses and cars and streets.
Willis’ demeanor shortly after his arrest was anything but military.
“I swear I was shooting up,” Willis told a Sangamon County sheriff’s detective shortly before breaking down in tears in an interview room.
A detective offered some comfort.
“There’s no doubt it was an accident,” the detective told Willis in a video of the defendant’s post-arrest interview by police.
It didn’t matter that Willis didn’t mean to kill anyone. All prosecutors had to prove was that he fired into a building that he knew or should have known was occupied. Prosecutors told the jury that Willis, who lived in Kincaid but was familiar with the area where his girlfriend lived, knew full well that the apartment building wasn’t vacant. Indeed, they said, lights were turned on inside the apartment. And they pointed out that Willis returned to Ridge and Stephens avenues the following morning to pick up shell casings and also stashed the rifle in the basement of his girlfriend’s house, underneath stairs.
“There has never been an innocent man who went so far to cover his tracks,” assistant state’s attorney Sara Velde told the jury during closing statements.
Willis told the jury that an acquaintance unfamiliar with firearms shot the rifle parallel to the ground and toward the apartment. Willis said that he aimed at the sky. After the shooting was done, Willis said that he and the acquaintance returned to the party at his girlfriend’s house and set off more fireworks. He said he heard sirens about 15 minutes later, but didn’t worry after a passing motorist said that someone had been injured by fireworks.
“I didn’t have anything to do with that dude dying – I know that much,” Willis said.
Willis told the jury that he received weapons training in the army and was considered an expert shot at 500 yards, a point prosecutors hammered during closing statements.
“Who’s the marksman?” assistant state’s attorney Jay Magnuson asked repeatedly.
Willis’ sentencing is set for Sept. 12.
Staff writer Patrick Yeagle contributed to this report.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.