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NAACP Wants Increased Ethical Standards for Attorneys

Posted October 9, 2007
Updated October 10, 2007

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— The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP on Tuesday called on state legal associations to amend their ethical standards for attorneys by banning discrimination.

The organization, which has led a high-profile campaign to dismiss murder charges against James Johnson, a Wilson man charged in a 3-year-old murder case, said the judicial system in North Carolina is flawed and allows racism and classism to exist.

"Our system must change," chapter President Rev. William Barber said. "Black, white – if justice is rendered, we will celebrate. If it is not, we will criticize it." He added, "If you don't have the means to get high-powered attorneys, you can get lost in the system."

Barber and his group wants lawyers' organizations, including the State Bar Association, to add language to their bylaws that says prosecutors in criminal cases should not discriminate based on race in administering justice.

State officials said that is already outlined in the U.S. Constitution, however.

The NAACP maintains the high-profile case involving Johnson is based on discrimination, that it should have been dismissed because of a lack of evidence.

"They (investigators) wanted someone else to pay for the death of Brittany Willis .I believe they wanted another black man to pay for the death of Willis," University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill law professor Richard Rosen said Tuesday.

Johnson and another teenager, Kenneth Meeks, were arrested and charged with first-degree kidnapping, robbery, rape and murder in the June 2004 death of 17-year-old Brittany Willis.

But records show no DNA evidence from Johnson at the crime scene where Willis was found. Johnson also passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement. And Meeks confessed in an April 2007 letter to The Wilson Daily Times to committing the crime alone and said Johnson was innocent.

Up until late last month, Johnson was in jail under a $1 million bond. He was released Sept. 24 when a judge reduced the bond to $60,000.

The NAACP also put pressure on the Wilson County District Attorney's Office to ask for a special prosecutor to reconsider the case.

Belinda J. Foster, an assistant district attorney in Forsyth County, could take on that advisory position and make recommendations to a Superior Court judge about whether to proceed with the case.

Foster, who served as district attorney in Rockingham County from 1993 to 2006, is also on a panel examining the Durham Police Department's handling of the Duke University lacrosse investigation.

Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith said he has to check Foster's trial schedule and expects to make a decision soon about whether she should take on the case.

In a recent letter to The Wilson Daily Times, Willis' family said they supported the decision to appoint a special prosecutor.

"We agree this case must be presented to an objective an impartial jury for resolution," the family wrote.

The letter went on to say that the family believes evidence in the case warrants a trial and that they would like to see that happen as soon as possible.