By RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
The man who pulled the trigger in a June shooting in Benson entered into a plea agreement in Johnston County Superior Court Wednesday afternoon.
Michael Trism Willis, 22, of Lucama pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter, possession of methamphetamine and attempting to possess, buy, sell or alter a gun serial number, before Judge Kendra Hill, in the shooting death of 40-year-old Jason Rivera.
After pleas from his attorney for a suspended sentence and home arrest with an ankle monitor, Mr. Willis was sentenced to 13 to 25 months in prison and given credit for time served.
In exchange for his plea, one charge of possession of drug paraphernalia was dropped.
“I know we, that generally our reaction, when we hear a criminal act has led to the death of another human being, our first reaction is almost always, well, you’ve got to go to prison,” defense counsel Lamar Proctor told the judge. “I don’t think that’s going to help Mr. Willis. I think Mr. Willis needs to get the opportunity at probation, get the opportunity for mental health and substance abuse treatment. And if he blows it and commits another criminal offense, he’s gone.” Mr. Willis had originally been charged with first-degree murder in the aftermath of the incident, which took place at a Benson apartment complex on the night of June 25.
While visiting the residence, along with two other people, Mr. Willis and Mr. Rivera got into a verbal dispute over a cellphone.
Police reports indicated the argument and ensuing altercation led to Mr. Rivera being shot once in the chest, then stumbling outside before succumbing to his wound.
Two stories have emerged as to what happened, one by the district attorney’s office (and supported by witness statements) that the two men were separated when the gunshot occurred. The other, from the defense, says the two men were still interlocked in the physical altercation.
Both sides did agree that there was evidence — including bruises to his hands and back — that Mr. Rivera had struck Mr. Willis several times with a cane during the physical altercation and that Mr. Willis had brandished the gun.
“Obviously Mr. Rivera was upset and they proceeded to get into the fight, with Mr. Rivera having the cane and Mr. Willis having the handgun,” Johnston County Assistant District Attorney Kelly Sandling said. “The argument moved into the kitchen of this apartment, a very small apartment. In the kitchen, Mr. Willis said Mr. Rivera proceeded to hit him in the hand with the cane.”
Mr. Willis claims at that point the gun accidentally discharged.
“Other witnesses did not describe that particular version of events,” Ms. Sandling added. “They described there being a separation between Mr. Rivera and Mr. Willis. During that separation, Mr. Willis fired a shot which penetrated Mr. Rivera’s chest.”
After the shooting, Mr. Willis fled the scene and ran into an adjacent woodline where he disposed of the gun and methamphetamine that he had been carrying.
“While talking with Benson Police Department he stated that he knew where the gun was and he would lead them to the gun that was used in this case,” Ms. Sandling said. “Detective (Danny) Lucas and Detective (Greg) Percy of the Benson Police Department ended up taking him out, at which point he led them to the area where he put the gun.”
According to arrest and incident reports, Mr. Willis voluntarily surrendered to authorities for questioning the night the shooting took place.
After a lengthy interview with Benson Police detectives, Mr. Willis admitted to the shooting and was charged.
The judge agreed with Mr. Proctor’s claim of mitigating circumstances, but felt they weren’t excuses for his actions.
“This is a sad case that generates from drug problems and it’s unfortunate for the families as well as for the defendant here,” Judge Hill said. “Mr. Willis, I hope that you can get some assistance while you are incarcerated.”