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Wilson Murder Suspect Out on Bond; Special Prosecutor to Be Appointed

Posted September 24, 2007

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— James Johnson's release from jail on bond Monday capped an emotional day that also saw approval granted for a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case against him for the 2004 rape and murder of Britanny Willis.

Superior Court Judge John Smith put Johnson's trial on hold while the the state Attorney General's Office agreed to work with the Wilson County District Attorney's Office to hand over the case to a special prosecutor.

Johnson walked out of jail for the first time in three years after Smith reduced his bond from $1 million to $60,000. He thanked his supporters, family and detention officers for treating him well.

"It got the attorney general's office, the governor's office to look at this and say, 'Oh, my God," James' father, Arthur Johnson, said.

The murder case has at times divided the community. While Johnson's family celebrated, Willis' relatives and friends experienced a difficult day. Her parents were present at the court proceedings but declined to comment.

Some of her former classmates wore ribbons while they waited and watched outside the courthouse.

"The community's really hurt by this, and some of it we just don't think is fair," Brittney Forbes said.

"We're constantly reminded of it all the time. We're ready for it to be over, ready for justice to be served, basically," Sommer Tomlinson said.

A joint motion for a special prosecutor was filed by the Wilson County District Attorney's office and defense attorneys. Smith said he "believed public confidence will be enhanced with the outcome from the special prosecutors on the case."

It will take a few days for the Administrative Office of the Courts to appoint a special prosecutor. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said it believes the case deserves a fresh look.

Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter, called the decision "revolutionary" and "historic" for North Carolina. He pointed to such cases as that of Darryl Hunt, who spent 18 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction.

"(The decision) affords us the opportunity to do right before a prosecutorial wrong is done," Barber said. "We recognize this was the only way to have confidence in the judicial system."

Willis' friends said they welcomed the appointment of a special prosecutor and hoped it would help get down to what happened to their friend.

"They just need to go with the evidence, because that's the only proof that they have. And there were no witnesses," Forbes said.

Johnson's family indicated they're eager to continue the legal process with Johnson released.

"This is just the first leg. Now, James has to vindicate himself," Arthur Johnson said, "but at least this way, he can do it from this side of the walls, where he belonged the whole time."

Barber called Smith's decisions the first steps in what the NAACP hopes to make a long-ranging reform of the justice system. Supporters of Johnson announced that their local chapter of the NAACP will become official as of Tuesday.

"The kinds of steps that have been taken today, the kind of light that's being brought to the dark realities of the injustices of our systems that are often 'permeated' on the basis of race and class, is not just good for James, but ... will be good for all of us," he said. "And I believe that ultimately, when we make the justice system better, God is pleased."

At a evening press conference, supporters of Johnson reached out to Willis' family.

"We are not here to gloat. And the joy that you have seen, the smiles are not in any way a dis-concern for the family or the slain daughter of this community, Brittany Willis," Barber said.

"We know it for a fact that this has been something that has divided the community, but we pray now that it's something that will begin to heal our community," Rev. Elton Powell, a supporter of Johnson, said.

Johnson's mother said she was looking forward to their first meal as a reunited family. An obviously emotional Johnson gave thanks to his family for their support during the three years he spent in jail.

"First of all, I'd like to thank God for being by my side and helping me maintain my sanity and my strength," he said.

Authorities said Willis, 17, was kidnapped from the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson. They said she was later robbed, raped and shot to death in a field on Westshire Drive.

Police arrested and charged Johnson and Kenneth Meeks with Willis' death. Meeks pleaded guilty to killing Willis in April 2006 in a deal in which he would spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Meeks also wrote a letter to the Wilson Daily Times, claiming he "committed the crime alone and James Johnson is innocent." He said he had earlier accused  Johnson because he was upset at his friend's turning him in to authorities.

Court records show Johnson passed a polygraph test, and there has been no DNA to connect him to the crime. Records also show dogs tracked Johnson's scent to the crime scene.

Johnson admitted he was at the scene, but said Meeks took him there to show him the girl's body. Johnson also passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in the kidnapping, rape and murder.

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  • methinks Sep 25, 2007

    I dont care if Johnson is purple, pink, or yellow. His bond should not have been reduced to such a low amount. Now any criminal charged with murder, rape, and kidnapping will ask for that amount and will get it because this set the stage for it.

    Just because the NAACP says that there is no "credible" evidence doesn't mean there isn't any evidence. It is up to the jury to decide if it is credible or not.

    Well, Mr. Johnson might get off with all this mess that has been stirred up over his race and that saddens me. But the way society is over wrongful death lawsuits, the Willis can still go after him in civil court. Not that I think they would do that, because they are not that kind of people.

    And before you bash me over my comments, I don't know if he did it or not, but he has admitted to be involved and the questions are over how involved.....and that story has changed so many times by all the defendants who knows what is true any more.

  • tarheellee Sep 25, 2007

    this is a misjustice

  • tarheellee Sep 25, 2007

    i think its not right to let a guilty man out of jail. the guy in prison pne min said he was there the next min he says he wont . u cant tell me u believe that mess.this is a messed up court system

  • Run_Forrest_Run Sep 25, 2007

    The law is the law. Accessory after the fact is still a crime and he has to do the time. He knew about the crime and the ONLY reason he ever went near the PD was to get reward money. Otherwise you'd never heard from him. I don't want to keep him in prison because he's black. I want him in prison because he has committed a crime and assisted in a crime being committed and he has the morals of someone I'd much rather have behind bars that walking around the same city I work in. I want him in prison because of his illegal actions and I don't want him out of prison because of his skin color.

  • snoopdogpm Sep 25, 2007

    Lord please help us all!!!

  • shine Sep 25, 2007

    All I can sy if you don't want trouble - don't go where trouble is at..........

    If you hang out with trouble - then you will get in trouble - and you will have trouble.

  • UpwardlyMobile Sep 25, 2007

    I don't understand. He turned his "friend" in. And he's been sitting in a jail cell for the last three years because the "friend" was mad at him for turning him and said that he took part in the crime. For those of you who want to make this a racial issue you need to stop. The guilty party is already in prison for the rest of his life. So now you just want to go and put everyone and anyone black who may have known something about it in prison too. This situation should have been worked out long ago for the sake of everyone, including the young woman's family. Now they have to suffer through all of this testimony and allegations all over again.

    My thoughts and prayers go out to the young woman's family.

  • UpwardlyMobile Sep 25, 2007

    The whole problem with this is the fact that it has taken soooo long to get to this point. I believe that justice will be served in this case but to have him sitting in prison for charges that the guilty party has confessed to is terrible. Yes, I believe that he will probably be found guilty for the crime of being an accessory. But this boy is not a murderer.

    I would like to send a hug to the family of the victim also. My heart is broken because of your loss. Despite all of this, no one is going to forget that you have lost your child.

  • iamforjustice Sep 25, 2007

    I believe he is innocent. Where is Ben Chavis when you need him. He needs to come and start a Wilmington 10 in Wilson. Burn the whole city down and let this young boy go free.

  • Gunslinger Sep 25, 2007

    One thing about the reward. We are all used to seeing posters or news reports saying such things as "If you have any knowledge of the _____ Just call _____".

    If rewards are to serve any purpose at all it is to get people who may have gotten knowledge of the act via a friend.

    If you start prosecuting or attacking those who come forward for the reward then the reward system is now basiclly useless.

    Lets see 25 million on OBL. No I am sure Rev. Timmy Straightlace from Peoria will be able to collect on that one or maybe just maybe somebody that knows him just might decided to roll on him.

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