Killer blows a kiss to his victim's family as he leaves court, allowed to skip their statements
The murder trial was all but over.
A jury of Jeffrey Willis' peers had determined that he had gunned down Rebekah Bletsch, a 36-year-old jogger he'd encountered on the side of a Michigan road in 2014. Investigators say he was trying to pull her into his van as she tried to fight back.
But before Willis was sent to prison for the remainder of his life, Bletsch's tearful family members had some words for him - a time-honored and highly emotional court moment known as the victim impact statement.
Jessica Josephson told the court about her slain sister's now-motherless child, according to Fox affiliate WXMI. She praised her sibling, saying: "Becky was everything a big sister should be. . . . Becky is so much more than the jogger on the side of the road."
And she railed against Willis, calling him a "monster," and adding that she hoped he would "rot in hell."
Another of Bletsch's sisters said she was "full of hate and anger" toward Willis.
But Willis never heard any of it.
Before the sisters spoke in court, Muskegon County Circuit Judge William Marietti granted Willis' request to skip the victim impact statements, and the sentencing that followed, according to CBS News.
And so, moments before Bletsch's family shuffled to the front of the courtroom, Willis was escorted out of it.
As he left, he turned to his victim's family and blew a kiss.
His stunning act was met with screams of "coward" from the crowd. But the judge had spoken, and there was nothing the family could do.
According to Michigan Live, Willis' attorney said it was the defendant's desire to be absent for his sentencing.
Marietti did not immediately return messages from The Washington Post seeking comment Tuesday. Michigan law gives crime victims the right to make a statement to the court during sentencing, but there's nothing that says a defendant has to listen, attorneys in the case told WXMI.
"You can't make him listen anyway," Willis' attorney, Fred Johnson, said after the sentencing. "If a person is going to be there and cause a disturbance, then you've got a circus. You've got the 'Jerry Springer Show.' "
Prosecutors objected to Willis' request to leave, saying the man was taking the "cowardly" way out. But the judge said it was the defendant's right to not be present.
The family's anger boiled over during and after the hearing. For them, it had been a three-year ordeal. Bletsch was fatally shot in June 2014 in Dalton Township, on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan, according to the Detroit Free Press. But investigators didn't arrest Willis until June 2016, after he was identified in an attempted kidnapping in nearby Fruitland Township.
"This coward should have been here to listen to us," Bletsch's mother, Debra Reamer, said. She had also given a victim impact statement, speaking of the night she learned her daughter had been murdered, then dissolving into tears, unable to continue.
"We deserve a right to tell him exactly how we feel," she said afterward. "For him to walk out on us was just horrible." Josephson, Bletsch's younger sister, said that although she, too, was outraged by the act, she took some satisfaction in knowing Willis would spend the rest of his life in prison.
"The fact that Jeffrey Willis walked out of the courtroom and wouldn't hear any of us, it just goes to show what a coward he really is," Josephson said. "And then he turns around and blew a kiss - that's his kiss of death. I think he's going to enjoy a kiss in prison. I don't think he's going to make it very long in prison. I hope he gets what he deserves."
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, all states allow victim impact statements at some phase of the sentencing process:
"Victim impact statements may provide information about damage to victims that would otherwise have been unavailable to courts or parole boards.
". . . Victim impact statements are often the victims' only opportunity to participate in the criminal justice process or to confront the offenders who have harmed them. Many victims report that making such statements improves their satisfaction with the criminal justice process and helps them recover from the crime."
Monday's incident may not be the last chance Willis has to get the last word in a court hearing. His attorneys have begun preparing his defense in the case of the 16-year old-girl who says she escaped his kidnapping attempt, according to Michigan Live. And police say he is still a suspect in another woman's disappearance.