Botched trial results in NJ man’s rape conviction getting tossed
PLAINFIELD — The botched prosecution of an accused rapist could mean that the Piscataway man could go free after the state’s top court on Wednesday threw out his rape conviction.
Richard Willis, 53, was convicted of brutally raping a heroin-addicted prostitute in his car in this city in 2006.
His DNA matched the semen collected from the 22-year-old North Plainfield victim, who eventually managed to get out of his car and scream for help.
But the state Supreme Court said Wednesday that the Union County Prosecutor’s Office and the trial judge prejudiced the jury by allowing another woman to testify that Willis also had tried to rape her years earlier in this same city.
Although Plainfield police arrested Willis following that 2003 incident, authorities never pressed charges against him.
The five-day trial in the 2006 case, however, included as much testimony about the alleged 2003 attempted-rape incident as it did about the 2006 sexual assault charges.
The trial judge ruled that the earlier woman's testimony would be relevant, although he later instructed the jury not to consider it for the purpose of concluding that the defendant had a tendency to commit sexual assault.
On appeal, a panel of judges said the 2003 incident should not have been brought up, and ordered Willis to be sentenced again.
But that was overturned by the Supreme Court in its 5-0 decision, which went further in tossing the conviction altogether, stating that the connection between the two cases was “marginal at best” and caused “undue prejudice.”
The decision says the so-called “other-crime evidence” in the trial “was so disproportionate that it had the clear capacity to distract the jury’s attention from the case-in-chief and overwhelm any effort to cabin the jury’s consideration of the limited role this evidence had at trial.”
The 2006 rape
The victim, who was identified in court papers only by the initials K.M., said she was walking home from Plainfield about 10 p.m. one night in April 2006 when Willis pulled up his car and offered her a ride. She agreed, thinking she recognized him, but realized he was a stranger after the car began moving.
She testified that Willis drove her to a dark neighborhood in Plainfield, took her cigarette and burned her wrist. He then grabbed her head and tried to force her to perform oral sex on him, but she kept her mouth closed and grabbed and twisted his testicles. She says that’s when he smacked her across the face, causing her to hit her head against the passenger door window.
He held her down and took off her pants, raping her as she cried, she testified. When he rolled off of her, she got out of the car, leaving behind her purse, and screamed “rape!” A neighbor heard her and called police, who found her crying near the corner of Johnson Avenue and George Street.
Willis was arrested after the victim later identified him as her rapist from a line up of photos almost a year later.
The 2003 attempted rape
The trial judge allowed the prosecutor to put on the stand an alleged earlier victim of Willis, even though he was never prosecuted for that alleged crime.
This victim was identified in court records only by the initials N.J.
She testified that she, too, took a ride from Willis after her car broke down while she visited her grandmother in Plainfield. But instead of driving her to Piscataway, Willis allegedly drove her to a parking lot and started choking her with one hand as he tried to undress her with his other.
As she screamed for help and resisted, she eventually managed to get out of the car by convincing him to let her get into the back seat to “come up for air.”
Riding in a police car that evening, the victim pointed out Willis’ car as he drove past. Police testified that the contents of Willis’ car matched the items that the victim had described to him.
But charges were never brought against Willis for some reason. The victim testified that the Prosecutor’s Office never contacted her. She said she never followed up because she thought that officials probably did not believe her.
Willis was sentenced in 2009 to 10 years in prison for second-degree sexual assault, four years for criminal restraint and six months simple assault.
Willis remains locked up at Northern State Prison in Newark. He would have been eligible for parole Nov. 5, 2016.
A vacated conviction means that the indictment against him on the original charges remain. His attorney could ask a judge to set bail and the prosecutor could seek a new trial.
Willis was represented by the state Public Defender’s Office, which declined to comment for this story. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office also declined to comment.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.