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Justice for Mario Willis


March, 2023

In the redemptive setting of Ypsilanti’s Second Baptist Church a well-dressed woman with a pleasant smile greets a man just released from prison. On this sunny September afternoon Ronnell Johnson is free after 14 years, following what the Washtenaw County prosecutor determined to be a wrongful robbery conviction.

The woman co-hosting Johnson’s reception through the Ambassadors Group, a nonprofit support initiative, is Maxine Willis, who hopes the next homecoming will answer a prayer. Her son, Mario Willis, is serving year 12 of a 30-year minimum sentence for the 2008 blaze that killed firefighter Walter Harris.

“The reason that you see all this here,” she later says, near basement shelves of court files, “is that it’s heart-wrenching to have a child in prison. But I didn’t just want to be a mother who said, ‘My child didn’t do this.’ I wanted to show it through evidence and facts.”

Convicted in what prosecutors framed as an arson-for-insurance money scheme at 7418 East Kirby St. in Detroit, Mario Willis and his advocates await a judge’s decision, following a motion that could win his freedom. The filing includes disturbing claims of coercion and suppressed evidence while Willis was painted as villain in a crime widely regarded as one of Detroit’s worst of the decade.

“I’ve been looking forward to having the opportunity to tell my story and have this false narrative changed,” he says from Saginaw Correctional Facility during a telephone call with Metro Times.

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