Thursday, April 8, 2004
Judge gives terminally ill killer life sentence
By HENRY FREDERICK | News-Journal Legal Affairs Writer
DELAND — Derrick Willis is likely to die from bone marrow cancer sooner than the state could have put him to death.
Willis, 41, pleaded guilty to capital murder Wednesday for killing his son’s grandmother three years ago in her Daytona Beach home. Circuit Judge S. James Foxman sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Willis’ crime made him eligible for the death penalty. But Assistant State Attorney Ed Davis said he agreed to a negotiated plea when the attorneys in the case learned, last week, that Willis’ medical condition would almost certainly claim his life in less than two years and, possibly, within the next six months.
Davis said the plea will save the state the expense of a death penalty trial that could last several weeks and spares relatives of the victim from having to testify.
The daughters of victim Ophelia Perry agreed to the plea, with some hesitation.
Dr. Joseph Smith, medical doctor for the Volusia County Branch Jail, told the judge Willis’ bone cancer had spread to “all of the skeletal structure — ribs and backbone” and there was no hope for recovery.
“The diagnosis is very conclusive,” Smith said.
Willis was convicted of stabbing Perry 13 times in the neck during an attempted robbery May 29, 2001. Her body was found covered in off-white paint, Davis said after the sentencing hearing Wednesday.
Defense attorney Thomas Mott blamed the killing on Willis' cocaine addiction and said the criminal justice system failed his client by not treating his addiction during an earlier imprisonment for fighting with a police officer.
Willis told the victim's daughters, including two in the courtroom and a third on a conference call, that he was filled with sorrow for the killing.
Perry, 78, was a retired schoolteacher who had served the Volusia County School District for 32 years.
She was well-known in the black community near her North Street home for helping others, the daughters said.
"I'm so sorry what happened to your mother — OK?" Willis asked Janice Hodge, 44, who was on a conference call with the judge from her home in Hawaii.
She responded, "No! It's not OK."
Willis replied, "I just hope you find in your heart someday to forgive me."
Abigail Perry-Adenine, another of the victim's daughters, suggested to Willis that he make his "peace with Christ Jesus, because he is the only one who gives life and allows death."