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NAACP, Relatives Petition State Leaders Before Teen's Murder Trial

Posted September 21, 2007
Updated September 22, 2007

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— Before James Johnson goes on trial for the 2004 murder of a Wilson teenager on Monday, his supporters are leaning on state leaders to step in for a defendant they believe is the victim of retribution.

Investigators said Johnson and Kenneth Meeks kidnapped Brittany Willis, 17, from a parking lot and robbed, raped and shot her in a field on Westshire Drive near the Brentwood Shopping Center.

Supporters of Johnson, however, say he's the victim of Kenneth Meeks, who initially told police that Johnson was involved in the abduction and murder. Johnson, a friend of Meeks, turned the other teenager into police.

"It's time to free James Johnson and let him come home and start his life. It's time to drop the murder charges," said Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Johnson has been held in the Wilson County jail for three years while waiting trial. He was allowed a $1 million secured bond after prosecutors stopped seeking the death penalty in December 2006. To be released, Johnson would have to come up with as much as 15 percent through a bail bondsman, a sheriff's office's spokesperson said.

On Friday, NAACP members, armed with stacks of petitions, arrived at the Governor's Office and asked for an outside assessment of the case.

"Hundreds of people have signed these petitions," Barber said.

Franklin Freeman, a senior aide to Gov. Mike Easley, spent 40 minutes talking with supporters. Although the Governor's Office does not have authority in the case, a spokesperson for the governor called the talks polite and productive.

Johnson's supporters have also filed complaints with the State Bar against Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe, who's been involved in the case. Johnny Gaskin, Johnson's public defender when it was a capital case, told WRAL that he doesn't think there is any evidence of prosecutable misconduct on the part of Wolfe.

Wilson District Attorney Howard Boney Jr. will not comment on the case.

"There's a fog over North Carolina's justice system," Barber said.

Bob Hurley, the N.C. capital defender, said Johnson's case was delayed, in part, because it was a death-penalty case for so long. Johnson's case has exceeded the average 18 to 24 months for a capital case to get to trial, but the delay is not unprecedented.

Hurley pointed to a case in Robeson that took 4½ years to get to trail. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled that time was not a violation of the defendant's right to a speedy trial.

Johnson's family question the evidence against him and the more than three years it has taken to bring him to trial.

"We want justice, not one, but for all," James's father, Arthur Johnson, said.

The murder case has been slow moving from the start, as 95 pieces of evidence were analyzed over a two-year period. Some reports from the State Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation came back as late as January 2006.

The two suspects were indicted nine months after the crime, and conflicts with attorney's schedules also caused delays.

While pleading guilty in the summer of 2006, Meeks recanted his accusation of Johnson and said he was mad at his friend for turning him in. He said he acted alone.

Police dogs sniffed Johnson's presence at the crime scene. Eyewitnesses told police they saw two black men with Willis on the day she died, according to court records.

Those records also show DNA evidence from Willis's body links Meeks – but not Johnson – to the crime scene. Johnson also passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in the kidnapping, rape and murder.

Johnson was a star soccer player at Fike High School in Wilson. Willis had just graduated from Hunt High School before her murder. Both were enrolled in college for the following fall.

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  • not pc Sep 23, 2007

    it seems to me the naacp is doing more harm to the black comunity than helping,everytime they get involved it only makes for harder times between the stupid and simple minded on all sides if they would show that they care for all people of color equaly you could give credit where credit is due but when you see they are so one sided you have to call it what it is a racest org.....

  • nunyabizness Sep 23, 2007

    Wonder why the NAACP won't put up the bond for Johnson? Maybe they think it is more sensational to whine and carry on in the media. Does Rev. Barber have a daughter? Can he not have empathy for the victim's family? This is a tragedy that no family should have to endure. Instead of trying to free Johnson, who admittedly took part in the crime, Rev. Barber should be preaching to his followers about loving their neighbors and following the Ten Commandments, most notedly the one related to killing.

  • whatusay Sep 23, 2007

    Has the NAACP offered any sympathy to the Willis family? A black man is in prison for life for taking this young woman's life and not one word to the family from the NAACP. What kind of organization would not offer some kind of "we are sorry for your loss" statement. Instead, they are calling for the release of a "charged" black man, whether guilty or innocent. At least have the decency to call the victims family and acknowledge what a young black man did to this family. If the NAACP want to be involved, then get involved with all sides, not just the black side.

  • nunyabizness Sep 23, 2007

    What a sad situation for all involved. At least the Johnson family can go and visit their son, as can the relatives of Meeks. Where were they when the murder took place? Johnson had several days to contemplate turning in Meeks. If he is such a wonderful person, why didn't he immediately go to the police? Strange how he waited for a sizeable reward to be posted.
    I can't imagine how hard it is for the Willis family and the friends of Brittany. Keep them in your prayers as they have to relive the horror of what happened to Brittany. Neither she nor her family deserved to be victims of this senseless crime. Has the NAACP contacted them to offer condolences?
    Also, the trial delays were at the request of the defense. May justice be served.

  • imyourhuckleberry Sep 23, 2007

    If this kid recanted his original statement that Johnson was not involved, then not sure why they wouldn't have dropped the charges. Maybe the 95 pieces of evidence say something else?

    Being a good citizen and sports oriented does not mean you are not capable of crimes. If he is inocent he should be let go, if he is not, regardless if he is a football star and A student, he should be tried accordingly!

  • pingman Sep 23, 2007

    Let 'em all go. They're all INNOCENT!

  • FlyByNight Sep 23, 2007

    The blacks today are BOLD AND COURAGEOUS. *Amen* They really need to realize that. You would never make a slave out of me. Thank God..for the Second Amendment.

  • whatusay Sep 23, 2007

    No time for non-sense....He helped clean and dispose of the car...how can he be turned loose? If he is not guilty of helping murder this young woman isn't he guilty of obstructing justice?

  • Jokers Wild II Sep 23, 2007

    LOL @ set the man free comment when he ADMITTED his involvement! Sure he might not have pulled the trigger, but he was involved! Thats all we need is more affirmitave action in the world.. has done lot's of good so far.

  • Mrs. Fabulous Sep 22, 2007

    I hope and pray this young man is freed, if he is not guilty. I hope everyone that held him without a cause suffers for it. If he is not guilty according to the news article, then he should be free. There was no DNA evidence that linked him to the murder. He also passed a polygraph test. Set the man free.

    All you NAACP bashers, sit down and shut your mouths! Until you live a day in a black person shoes and find out what it's like, HUSH YOUR MOUTH. If it wasn't for NAACP and other civil rights leaders, blacks would be treated the way they were before MLK. Just the way most of you would want it. However, it will not happen! You are dealing with a whole different set of black people. The blacks before the MLK movement, were fearful. They had no power. The blacks today are BOLD AND COURAGEOUS. We have power. So you will not sit us down nor the associations that represent us. So get over yourselves. Cry and whin all you want!!!! LOL

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