Attorneys for Howard Hawk Willis filed a notice in Washington County Criminal Court this week stating their intention to appeal a judge’s denial of a new trial.
Willis, 61, is on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security prison for the deaths of Adam and Samantha Chrismer. The couple, ages 17 and 16 respectively, were both shot to death in October 2002.
Willis was convicted of both murders and sentenced to death. He’s currently incarcerated on death row at Riverbend Maximum Security prison in Nashville.
Earlier this month Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood filed a written order denying a new trial for Willis, who claimed numerous errors before and during the trial warranted a new one.
This new notice of appeal to a higher court is the next step in any appeal process. Willis’ attorneys will file the full appeal later.
It is likely to address many of the same issues as the motion for a new trial, but instead of one judge making a decision, a panel of judges will decide whether Willis is entitled to a new trial.
His case sparked a huge public outcry due to the graphic killings.
The teens were discovered in October 2002 inside plastic tubs in a rented warehouse unit in downtown Johnson City after the investigation began.
Police started the investigation after a fisherman found Adam Chrismer’s head floating in Boone Lake near Winged Deer Park.
The find started a lengthy judicial process that resulted in a judge eventually recusing himself from the case. Willis represented himself after having continued conflicts with numerous court-appointed attorneys and was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.
Willis’ attorneys claimed in the motion for a new trial that the week-long proceeding — during which Willis represented himself — was full of errors on the part of prosecutors and the judge.
Blackwood, sitting as the 13th juror, disagreed.
For his appeal process, Willis is represented by two attorneys — James Simmons, of Hendersonville, and Patrick McNalley, of Nashville.
The process will take years for Willis’ case to wind its way through the automatic appeals in death penalty cases.
If a death penalty case is upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA), it then goes to the Tennessee Supreme Court for review. On denial there, the appellate must ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear it. If that is denied, the appellate can file a post-conviction record on the trial-court level — Jonesborough in Willis’ situation — to raise any new constitutional issues.
From there, the case goes back to the CCA for review of the post-conviction record, then the appellate must ask the Tennessee Supreme Court to review the record as well.
If the case is upheld there, the appellate must ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the record. It then goes to Federal District Court to address federal constitutional issues and to the U.S. Court of Appeals to review that record. Then the U.S. Supreme Court must agree to hear the case if the defendant is denied relief on the federal constitutional issues.
The last step prior to an execution being carried out is for clemency or a pardon from the governor.