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Convicted murderer Howard Hawk Willis files motion to fire appellate attorneys

Becky Campbell • Mar 5, 2018 at 5:37 PM

A man on death row for killing and dismembering a teenage couple from Georgia more than a decade ago — and who had contentious relationships with every attorney appointed to represent him, which resulted in him representing himself at trial — now wants to be his own lawyer in his post-conviction proceedings in Jonesborough.

Howard Hawk Willis, now 66, was convicted and sentenced to death in May 2010 for the deaths of Adam and Samantha Chrismer. Their bodies were found dismembered and stuffed into large plastic totes inside a storage facility in downtown Johnson City. The investigation into the couple’s deaths started after a fisherman found Adam Chrismer’s head and hands floating in the water near Winged Deer Park in October 2002.

After Judge Lisa Rice, who now has the case on her docket, appointed the Post-Conviction Defender’s office to represent Willis, there was a hearing to set future court dates. One of Willis’ attorneys asked the judge for 18 months to research the case and file an amended PCR petition. At that time, Rice set the PCR hearing for November 2018, but in Willis’ letter to his attorney, he wrote that length of time is unacceptable.

In his letter, Willis urged his attorneys to take quicker action and raise the issues he presented because he has serious health issues and feels he has already spent too much time on death row.

In his motion to invoke his Sixth Amendment rights to represent himself, Willis pointed out that he made it clear to the post-conviction office to not accept his case if “they did not agree to follow his instructions.”

He also said the Post-Conviction office “has been a constant source of conflict because they wish to carry out an investigation on un-needed, un-colored claims and un-wanted matters not related to the issues Mr. Willis wants presented in violation of the terms” Willis set in accepting representation.

Willis was initially arrested in October 2002 on a federal violation of probation, which allowed investigators to start questioning him about the Chrismers.

He appeared on their radar after they backtracked the movements of the Chrismer couple and determined the trio left Georgia and traveled to Johnson City, where Willis’ mother, Betty Hawk Willis, lived. The teenagers’ bodies were eventually found in a storage unit rented by Betty Willis.

From the beginning of Willis’ representation by court-appointed lawyers, he had continual disagreements with one after the other. It became a pattern that once he disagreed with an attorney, he filed a complaint with the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which in turn required a judge give him a new attorney.

At least two appointments that failed were not directly Willis’ fault, but eventually then-Judge Lynn Brown refused to appoint anyone else and forced Willis to represent himself at trial.

That didn’t end well for Willis, as he was convicted of both murders and abuse of a corpse and sentenced to death.

Those disagreements Willis had with his trial attorneys has continued into his post-conviction appellate process, and the problem seems to revolve around what evidence can and cannot be presented, how it can be presented and Willis’ determination to get evidence into the record that judges have ruled was not relevant to the case.

In a letter from Willis to his post-conviction attorneys filed in Jonesborough to support Willis’ request to represent himself, Willis stated that he wanted seven specific issues raised at his PCR hearing. There is apparently a disagreement between Willis and his attorneys about the validity of those issues he wants them to raise.

One of those issues is Willis’ long-held attempt to have his conviction overturned based on what he said was a a violation of his Miranda rights when investigators questioned him in October 2002 about the Chrismers. 

Willis has maintained that his Miranda rights were trampled over and over as investigators questioned him after he made multiple requests for an attorney.

Along with the Miranda issue, in the initial post-conviction relief filing, Willis revisits suppression hearings regarding search warrants held by former Judge Lynn Brown — hearings that Willis said was filled with perjured testimony and without his being represented.

After Willis filed his February 2018 motion seeking to fire the post-conviction office and represent himself, Rice set the case for a hearing March 29. Willis is expected to be transported by the Tennessee Department of Correction to attend the hearing.

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