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Death row inmate who acted as own attorney seeks new trial

This photo provided by Tennessee Department of Correction shows Howard Willis. Willis, on death row, who was forced to act as his own lawyer is seeking a new trial, claiming multiple violations of his constitutional rights. He was sentenced to death in 2010 in the murder of two teenage newlyweds, (Tennessee Department of Correction via AP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee man on death row who was forced to act as his own lawyer is seeking a new trial, claiming multiple violations of his constitutional rights.

Howard Willis was sentenced to death in 2010 for the murders of teenage newlyweds, 17-year-old Adam Chrismer and 16-year-old Samantha Leming Chrismer, both of Chickamauga, Georgia. The boy’s head and hands were found by fishermen in Boone Lake in northeastern Tennessee in October 2002. The bodies of both teens were found a few days later in a storage unit rented by Willis' mother in Johnson City.

Willis had nine lawyers before the judge ruled that he would have to represent himself, accusing him of sowing conflict with his attorneys in an effort to avoid a trial. Willis’ current attorneys say that characterization is unfair.

Representing himself at trial, Willis claimed that he was set up and that there was no evidence tying him to the murder weapon. The jury found otherwise and sentenced him to death.

In his bid for a new trial, Willis claims the original was unfair because he was forced to act as his own attorney and because he wasn’t afforded sufficient resources to defend himself, among other claims.

Many of the attorneys left the case for reasons that had nothing to do with Willis, such as conflicts of interest or the need to care for a seriously ill relative.

As for the other attorneys, Willis had legitimate complaints about their work, his new petition argues. One attorney spent only nine hours reading the discovery material in the case between his appointment at the end of May 2005 and his withdrawal three months later.

“Although it is inconvenient to have to replace a lawyer, if there are legitimate complaints about the performance of that lawyer, a citizen should be entitled to raise those issues and have the right to counsel protected, especially when they are facing the death penalty," the petition reads.

In its response, attorneys for the state said many of Willis' complaints have already been considered by other courts and found to be without merit.

“The record clearly indicates that petitioner abused the dignity of the court by attempting to manipulate the court in order to delay or disrupt a trial,” the state’s response said. “If the petitioner was prejudiced ... the State would contend it was the direct result of his own calculated behavior.”

When the Chrismers were murdered in 2002, Willis was a Georgia trucker who was out on bond after an arrest in New York, where he was accused of smuggling cocaine from Texas to Brooklyn.

Willis was already a suspect in the teens' deaths when he was arrested in Tennessee on a bond violation. His New York attorney called the jail to invoke his right to representation and right to silence — meaning he should not be questioned about the Chrismers without his lawyer present. Law enforcement sought to circumvent that by working with Wills' ex-wife to solicit a confession in a taped jailhouse conversation.

Willis' belief that the confession was obtained illegally — and should have been thrown out — was a major point of conflict with his attorneys. He felt they were not doing enough to get the confession tossed. For instance, they never called his New York attorney to testify.

Willis' conflicts with his attorneys led to several withdrawing from the case. In 2008, the trial court judge ruled Willis had forfeited his right to an attorney. Willis appealed but lost. With the appeal over, he had only a few months to prepare his defense, according to the petition. That preparation was also seriously hindered by the fact that he was incarcerated. When he wanted to review previous court cases, he would have to leave a list on a Thursday for an investigator or public defender to bring the following Monday.

Willis asked the court to fund three expert witnesses he hoped to have testify at his trial. He wanted to raise doubts about the prosecution's theory that the Chrismers were killed at Willis' mother's house, and rebut testimony from the state's entomologist that blow flies found in the storage unit with the bodies matched blow flies found at the home. He asked for money for an expert on false confessions, a crime scene expert and an entomologist.

In the end, the judge only approved funding for an entomologist, and that person wasn't provided with the same raw data used by the state's expert — a fact that was used to make him look untrustworthy at trial, according to the petition. Meanwhile, witnesses for the state included a forensic anthropologist, crime scene analysts from both the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and a medical examiner.

The multiday hearing on Willis' petition for post-conviction relief is scheduled to begin Monday in Washington County Criminal Court in Jonesborough.