Washington, DC (May 11, 2023) – Criminal defense attorney and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) Past President (1974-75) James R. Willis was awarded the Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award on May 11 by NACDL President Nellie King during the Association’s 6th Annual Race Matters Seminar in Cincinatti, OH. NACDL’s Lifetime Achievement Awards are presented in recognition of exceptional accomplishments over a lifetime of distinguished leadership and service on behalf of the law.
NACDL President Nellie King stated:
"It is an honor to present NACDL’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Mr. James Willis. To give this award to NACDL’s first Black President, during NACDL’s 6th Annual Race Matters Seminar, is something noteworthy. While the Association has grown and accomplished numerous feats since Mr. Willis’ 1974 term, NACDL and its members are still working on many of the same issues that were around 50 years ago, using the groundwork and foundation that Willis paved. Mr. Willis’s career has been one dedicated to the criminal defense bar and most importantly, to the cause of social justice. Congratulations on this much deserved award."
Willis is a prominent figure in the African American community, serving as NACDL’s first African American president. Before his Presidency and becoming an attorney, James Willis joined the Montford Point Marines in 1944 in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The Montford Point Marines were "established in North Carolina during World War II, leading the way so that other Blacks could join the Corps."
Willis has provided over 350 opinions in courts and won two of three cases he argued before the Supreme Court. Willis’s landmark defense in Beck v. Ohio(1964) resulted in a win in which Cleveland police were ruled to be in violation of the fourth and fourteenth amendments. Willis’s argument in Beck v. Ohio set a precedent for citizens’ rights to privacy and due process under the law. The second successful argument was the case of Doyle and Wood v. Ohio(1976).
Bill Gallagher, criminal defense lawyer, NACDL Committee Chair, and longtime friend of James Willis stated:
"James Willis has tried cases in small county courtrooms where he and his client were the only strangers to large ornate federal courtrooms across this country. He is a rare mix of skilled trial lawyer and accomplished appellate advocate at every level. James Willis is one of the most prominent names in the criminal defense communities of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, and the State of Ohio. Even more so, he has been a mentor to young lawyers of color for over 70 years. For those reasons and so many others, he inspires others to do more because he has done more."
Other notable cases throughout Willis’s career include serving as the public defender for Melvin B. Guyon, who was accused of killing an FBI agent. While disputing whether the FBI agent announced who they were upon entering, Willis argued Guyon acted in self-defense, stating that the right to self-defense is as old as man himself because among our unalienable rights, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, is the pursuit of happiness, and you cannot pursue happiness unless you can defend yourself.
In another case which started out as a death penalty case, Willis was defending notable mobster James T. Licavoli when the prosecutor said to the jury during his argument that among the things you learn when growing up is "certain people are just bad people, they think they get to choose who lives or dies." In his response, noting the irony of calling out people like Licavoli for choosing who lives or dies when originally trying to inflict the death penalty, Willis said "well, he’s not all bad, with the state trying to take his life, he reached back and found a Kentucky farm boy, Black, to represent him."
He received his law degree from Case Western Reserve University in 1952.