Willis -- who was exonerated on Friday, Sept. 19, after 22 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola -- was quick to credit Gregory for his release at a press conference last Tuesday attended by national Innocence Project head Barry Scheck and Baton Rouge attorney Jim Boren. The Innocence Project and Boren had thrown themselves into Willis' case, and Willis thanked them.
But it was Gregory who truly made it happen, Willis says. It was all because she had worked as a paralegal for an attorney hired by Willis' grandparents. The attorney had worked only briefly on the case before being killed by a lightning strike. Gregory left the job, but she couldn't leave two clients behind. One of them was Willis, who in 1982 had been convicted of raping a 10-year-old Shreveport girl and had been sentenced to life without parole.
Compared to today's DNA profiles, the 1982 lab tests were crude. "At the trial, they had shown that the rapist was a Type O secretor and that Calvin is a Type O secretor," Gregory explains. "But 60 percent of the male population are type O secretors." That, and testimony from the girls that the assailant had been wearing a cowboy hat, were enough to convict Willis, who also was known for wearing a cowboy hat.
Willis was sent to Angola, labeled a child rapist. "A charge like that is not like an armed-robbery charge, not even like a murder charge," Willis says. When people asked what he was in for, he recalls, "I would say, 'A child molestation charge, but I didn't commit it.' And they would say, 'Yeah, sure,' but you could see in their eyes how they really felt."
For her part, Gregory never thought that Willis was guilty. It wasn't that the assailant had left behind a pair of size 40 boxers and that Willis wore size 30. Or that the girl said that the rapist had a beard and Willis was clean-shaven. Or that one of the girls present had talked about another man stopping at the house that night. "Interestingly enough, it wasn't a detail that necessarily convinced me," says Gregory. "It was just one big 'Whoa! He didn't do this.'"
The two -- inmate and crusader -- first met in 1987, when two Angola guards escorted Willis to his grandfather's wake. "All of a sudden, I look up and see this woman coming at me. She just wrapped me up and hugged me tight," Willis remembers. "I said, 'Who are you?' It was Janet." They would see each other only two more times before his release.
Also at that funeral service were Willis' son, Calvin Jr., and his daughter, Dekesha. "They were about 5 and 8 at the time," Gregory estimates, "and I told them, 'You are going to hear some awful things about your daddy, but they are not true.' And I will go to my grave saying that."
Gregory left the funeral with renewed vigor. With Willis' case files stowed in a closet in her house, she tried legal avenue after legal avenue -- with no luck. Then about five years ago, after Willis had heard about the national Innocence Project from another inmate, Gregory submitted forms to the organization. They were interested, she says, but didn't have enough money for the DNA testing. So Gregory began raising it. Eventually this single mom without much cash sent the Innocence Project $6,000. About a quarter of it was her own money, she says.
The eventual tab was $14,000 just for DNA testing alone. "Because of the age of the evidence and the things they had to test," she says, "the costs just ran up."
But in the end, it was money well spent -- the DNA results showed that the DNA found at the scene did not belong to Willis. "Calvin's DNA was not there; it was not in her fingernail scrapings, it was not on the boxer shorts," Gregory says.
Since Willis' release, his case has been on the Today show and has been written about in all the Louisiana newspapers and in the Los Angeles Times. Even last Thursday, the TV cameras were still arriving at the little house where he's living with his 85-year-old grandmother. But the realities are already hitting home. He has no money, and no hope -- at this point -- of getting any from the state. Louisiana -- unlike 17 other states -- does not compensate those who have been wrongly convicted.
Because of his conviction, he can't vote in the upcoming election. He has no money. No work. "I can go to a job right now and I can put 'exonerated' on a job application," he says. "but people don't know what exonerated means. I tell them I was in prison for 22 years and they say, 'Oh, you're an ex-con.' And nobody wants to hire an ex-con." Meanwhile, the man who is rumored to be the actual rapist is still riding around town, free. Willis says the man waved at him from the street last week.
Willis gets serious when he talks about those topics. But, overall, he's happy, gleeful. He's grateful for the stars above him, the night air, the two-hour baths after two decades of showers. He's caught his grandma, who's tickled to have him home, peeping in on him while he sleeps, like a baby in a crib. And he's amused by the people who run up to tell him they've seen him on television. "Women are so bold now; they kind of scare me," he says, especially because after all those years in prison, he's not used to people just coming up and touching him.
Then last Monday, Sept. 22, he held a new grandson in his arms. He had never held Calvin Jr. that way because he was in prison by the time his son was born, on Willis' 23rd birthday. But on Friday, they celebrated their birthdays together, for the first time ever.
His crusader is still looking out for him. Last week, Gregory gave him an early birthday present -- a set of clippers, the case and all the attachments, he says. He's going to enroll in barber college and he and his son -- who's a barber by day and a rapper by night -- hope to open up a shop together. They'll probably call it Willis and Willis, he says.