"He had worked, he felt good," said Emily Maw, his lawyer with the New Orleans innocence project (IPNO). The two had become good friends, and Maw says the last time she saw him three weeks ago, "it seemed so good to him."
On June 24, Willis was shot and killed in his Jackson, Mississippi neighborhood, two blocks from his home. The Jackson Police Department has not said whether they have any suspected or given any information about the subject.
CNN has tried to reach the department several times, but has not received a reply.
His mother, Elayne Willis, said police visited last week and told her that the incident is still under investigation.
"The only thing I know for sure is my son's dead. He left home and he didn't come back," she told CNN. "I don't know why, I don't know anything."
Willis failed the country over and over again, Maw says.
"America is hurting black men in many ways. Two of the main ways it does are the criminal justice system and the complete lack of control of guns. Cedric has been the victim of both and it is particularly tragic." [1
DNA evidence, wrong eye witnesses
In the summer of 1994, Willis 19 was celebrating his son's birth, CJ, 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 that time had similar patterns and evidence showed that the same gun had been used. Victims gave similar descriptions of the offender, said IPNO.
The suspect, said victims, had a gold tooth and no tattoos, said IPNO, but Willis had no gold teeth and his arms were inked. He was also 70 pounds heavier than their descriptions, according to IPNO.
But victims of both robberies identified Willis as the offender.
The test found that his DNA did not match the sample found in the rape victim and the prosecutors lost them charges, but he was tried for the second robbery and murder.
In the trial, the jury did not hear about DNA testing that excluded Willis from a robbery and rape.
"Eyewitnesses are so often wrong. Have excluded forensic medicine pointing in another direction from eyewitness identification, it's a huge red flag," Maw said.
"They knew they had the wrong man, and they were prosecuting him in some way," Maw said.
His time in prison, says Maw, was particularly difficult because he suffered from epilepsy and often had blackouts and seizures.
Willis & # 39; request for a new sample was ignored for years, the registration reports.
IPNO has heard of WIllis' case in 2004, and in 2005, he was given a new test after the union's request.
"Cedric was very shy and very careful," said Maw, when the two first met. "He would come to the point where he didn't really trust or thought anyone remembered he was there except for his mother and his family."
"It took a while for him to trust that we should stick and get it done," she said.
On March 6, 2006, he became a free man.
A "very low key guy"
Willis & # 39; mother never thought he was committing the crimes and always hoped he was free again.
"He had just become a father, he didn't go out and kill anyone," she said in the summer when he was arrested.
While in prison, Habitat for Humanity built Elayne Willis a house and she insisted they add another bedroom to her son.
"I told [them] that my son came home and I need room for him," she said.
That bedroom is where Willis lived after he was liberated and until he died.
In the years since his liberation he built a strong relationship with his son and family, and although his epilepsy often got in the way of holding a job, Willis kept busy.
He spoke to the NAACP, Maw said. He worked with ACLU, registered people to vote, did what he loved to call "electoral protection," the lawyer said. He helped take care of his cousin and sister's children, took a few jobs on a regular basis and recently enjoyed his new role as a grandfather.
"He was just a kind loving person trying to help people," Elayne Willis said.
His mother says that his erroneous belief had affected him deeply, but he "never let it show."
"He was a very low-key guy dealing with a terrible mass: the unthinkable mistake and pain he suffered and the difficulty of being a black man in Jackson, Mississippi," says Maw.
Willis was on his way home when he was killed, his mother said.
"He gave me so much joy," she said. "And I just want to miss him."