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For prosecutors, every victim counts

Updated: December 19, 2012 1:46PM

In May it will be seven years since the badly decomposed body of federal informant Earl Willis, 26, was found dead in the back seat of his conversion van.

It took a Cook County medical examiner to discover Willis had been shot twice in the head and once in the chest.

This past week, Cook County Judge Steven Goebel sentenced his killer, Spencer Martin, to life in prison.

Although solving the case required some good police work, it hardly ranks a prominent place in the annals of crime. In many ways, it was just another cheap murder, which is part of what makes it a story worth telling.

Even before last week’s sentencing, Martin, 35, was already serving a combined 134-year prison sentence for two separate attempted murder convictions.

Willis, the victim, was no model citizen either, unspecified previous criminal activity having brought him to the attention of agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who enlisted him as a “confidential source.”

Prosecutors say evidence indicated it was Willis who drove Martin from the scene of the second of those attempted murders — a stickup and shooting outside a North Side gas station on Feb. 4, 2006, the same night Willis went missing.

An argument therefore could be made, I suppose, that taking Martin to trial for Willis’ death was a waste of time and money as the earlier sentences were more than enough to keep him locked up for life under current Illinois laws.

Thankfully, though, that’s not how prosecutors look at these matters.

“It’s a murder case, and we couldn’t let it go,” said assistant State’s Attorney Tom Darman, who along with his partner Joe Keating prosecuted all three cases against Martin.

When you think about it, that’s an essential approach for our criminal justice system. Every victim has to count. And every victim’s family needs to know that the system will stick up for them.

If there’s strong enough evidence to support a murder charge, then police and prosecutors have to run it out, even when the net result isn’t going to change much.

Allean Clark could tell you that.

Earl Willis was her only son.

At Martin’s sentencing, Clark read a statement to the court, telling the judge how much she’d loved her son and how she’d hoped for so long that he’d grow up and stop associating with thugs.

Clark knew her son was no angel. But like any mother, she dreamed of better days, of seeing Willis continue his education, of being a grandmother to the children he would never have.

When her son went missing that February, she was the one who worried and called police and agonized until that day in May when neighbor complaints about the parking ticket-covered van—and the stench from inside—finally prompted the discovery of his body.

She learned about it from a CLTV report on an unidentified victim in what she recognized as her son’s vehicle.

Willis’ cell phone records placed him in the vicinity of the gas station shooting and showed that he traveled from there directly to the location where the van was found in the 7200 block of South Indiana—and never left.

The cell phone was found inside the van along with one shell casing.

To simplify a very complicated circumstantial case, let me just say that investigators were able to trace the bullets recovered from Willis’ body and the gas station shooting victim — and shell casings from all three crimes — to the same gun. In addition, the victims in the earlier cases were able to identify Martin as their shooter.

Plus, remember there were three bullets inside Willis and just one shell casing found, an indication the shooter had tried to clean up after himself.

“Only one person in the world knew that gun was used in two other shootings and didn’t want police to discover the casings,” Darman noted.

Police also found an open bottle of Remy in the pocket of a jacket draped over Willis. The bottle produced DNA matches for both men.

To this day, investigators do not know whether Willis’ murder had any relationship to his work as an informant, although they say they tend to believe it did not. He’d only worked on one case, and it didn’t involve Martin, although he’d mentioned Martin to ATF as a possible target.

Just as likely, though, was the explanation that Martin allegedly gave a jailhouse informant—that Willis owed him money.

That might not have been enough to give Willis’ mother that always elusive concept of “closure.” But it fulfilled our obligation to her to make sure his life counted, too.

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