"He was training, he felt good," says Emily Maw, his lawyer with the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO). The two had become good friends, and Maw said when she saw him three weeks ago the last time, "he seemed so well."
On June 24, Willis was shot dead in his neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi, two blocks from his home. The Jackson Police Department did not say if they have a suspect or provide any information about the motive.
CNN tried several times to reach the department, but received no response.
His mother, Elayne Willis, said the police visited her last week and told her that the incident was under investigation.
"I just know my son is dead, he left home and did not come back," she told CNN. "I do not know what, why, I do not know anything."
Willis has failed time and time again, says Maw.
"America hurts black men in so many ways, two of the main reasons are criminal justice and the total failure to control weapons, and Cedric was a victim of both, and that's especially tragic." [1
DNA evidence, false eyewitnesses
In the summer of 1994, Willis celebrated the birth of his son CJ at the age of 19 when he was arrested and charged with raping a woman in an armed robbery and the murder of a man in another in Jackson.
The two robberies and three others committed in Jackson at the time had similar patterns and evidence that the same weapon had been used. Victims gave similar descriptions of the offender, said IPNO.
The suspect, as the victims said, had a gold tooth and no tattoos, IPNO said, but Willis had no gold teeth and his arms were covered in ink. He was also 70 pounds heavier than their descriptions, according to IPNO.
Later, the victims of both robberies identified Willis as the culprit.
Tests showed that his DNA did not match the sample found on the rape victim, and the prosecutors dropped the case, but he was charged with the second robbery and murder.
During the trial, the jury did not hear about DNA testing, which excluded Willis from rape and rape.
"Eyewitnesses are so often mistaken – if you exclude forensics that points in a different direction from eyewitness identification, that's a huge red flag," Maw said.
"They knew they had the wrong man and they persecuted him in some way," Maw said.
Willis's application for a new trial has been ignored for years, reports the registry.
IPNO learned of WIllis' case in 2004 and in 2005, at the request of the law firm, a new trial was granted to him.
"Cedric was very shy and very cautious," says Maw, as they met for the first time. "He had reached a point where he did not really trust anyone or believed he was there except his mother and family."
"It took him a while to trust that we would stay here and do it," she said.
On March 6, 2006, he became a freelance man.
A & # 39; very reserved type & # 39;
Willis & # 39; mother never believed that he had committed the crimes and always hoped that he would be free again.
"He just became a father, he does not go out and does not kill anyone," she said about the summer when he was arrested.
While in prison, Habitat for Humanity built a house for Elayne Willis and she insisted that they add another bedroom for her son.
"I said [them] my son would come home and I would have to have a room for him," she said.
Willis lived in this bedroom after his release and until his death.
In the years since his discharge, he has developed a close relationship with his son and family, and although his epilepsy often interfered with a job, Willis was still busy.
He spoke with the NAACP, Maw said. He had worked with the ACLU, enrolling people to vote and doing what he liked to call "election protection," the lawyer said. He helped take care of the children of his cousin and sister, regularly took on some jobs, and more recently enjoyed his new role as a grandfather.
"He was just a kind-hearted, loving person who tried to help people," Elayne said Willis.
His mother says his wrongful conviction hit him deeply, but he "never allowed it."
"He was a very reserved guy involved with a terrible crowd: the unimaginable injustice and pain he suffered, and the difficulty of being a black man in Jackson, Mississippi," Maw says.
Willis was on his way home when he was killed, his mother said.
"He gave me so much pleasure," she said. "And I'll just miss him."