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Public opinion won't factor in special prosecutor's decision

Posted April 30, 2008
Updated May 1, 2008

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— It's an emotionally charged, high-profile murder case that's divided the Wilson community for months with claims of racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct and injustice.

But retired District Attorney W. David McFadyen Jr. – appointed to re-examine the June 2004 shooting death of 17-year-old Brittany Willis – says he won't allow public interest and opinion to factor into his decision whether to try one of the three suspects charged.

"I think, in this case, based on its history and based on the point that it's at now, I think it's very important that the public know that the person who is going to make a decision in this case is going to make it without outside pressure," he said.

Willis was carjacked, taken to a field near Brentwood Shopping Center, robbed, raped and shot to death.

One man pleaded guilty last April to the crime and is serving life in prison without parole.

Another man, James Johnson, 22, was detained for more than three years on charges of murder, rape and kidnapping before he was released on bond in September. In December, those charges were reduced to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. (Julian Tyson Deans, a third suspect whose case hasn’t gone to trial, is also charged with accessory after the fact.)

Johnson has long insisted he is innocent. And his supporters, which include the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, want the case dropped altogether, saying he should be hailed as a hero for turning in Willis' killer, Kenneth Meeks, to police.

Willis' family has said political motives and race have become the case’s focus, rather than bringing the person or people responsible for their child’s death to justice. They have said they’ve lost faith in the justice system.

"You can't help, as a human being, but have sympathy for all the parties involved in this case," McFadyen said. "But you have to make your decision in this case based on the facts and evidence."

McFadyen, the district attorney in Craven, Carteret and Pamlico counties for 24 years, is still reviewing the 4,000-page case file, hearing from all parties involved and interviewing investigators.

He says it's been a time-consuming process and that he has no time frame in mind to decide whether Johnson will go to trial.

"(I hope) at least, those – when this case is over – who have an interest in it, will believe they were fairly heard, regardless of the final disposition," he said.

Several weeks ago, McFadyen traveled from New Bern to the site in Wilson – now cleared for housing development – where investigators found Willis' body.

"I wanted to go back in this case and start my investigation, just as if this crime had just occurred," McFadyen said, ”just as I did for 26 years, and follow the evidence in this case to see where it leads."

According to police and court records, no physical evidence connects Johnson to the rape or homicide. Johnson has admitted to wiping his fingerprints off Willis’ sport utility vehicle but has said he was under duress at the time because Meeks showed him a gun. He went to police about the crime three days later.

Meeks initially implicated Johnson. But it was a handwritten letter to The Wilson Daily Times last April in which Meeks proclaimed Johnson’s innocence that touched off the public debate as to Johnson’s guilt or innocence.

"This case is just like every other serious case," McFadyen said. "You just have to follow the evidence. You follow the facts. You apply the law, then you make a decision that you believe is the right, just decision based on the evidence and facts of the law."


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  • Dr. Dataclerk May 1, 2008

    If memory serves me right, concerning the draging case in Texas - the driver of the truck was given Life. He was engaged and it was over the minute they sentence him. I would assume the girl went on with her life while the young man now sits in prison.

  • Dr. Dataclerk May 1, 2008

    I agree this young man is far from being a hero. His family and friends probably wished that. But like the old saying: Wrong place and wrong time. This young lady lost her life because her life was taken by criminals. Some are in prison, but this case is not over until ALL are in prison. He is guilty. I don't know how this young man walk and sleep? This is truly beyond me. Yet, I have never taken anyone ones life or for that matter just involved in some way.

  • Dr. Dataclerk May 1, 2008

    Remember the draging case in Texas where the young man who owned the truck said he had nothing to do with it, but the other two men did. After the crime of murder, the owner of the truck was put out at his house and this young man never said a word or called the sheriff's office. Today, right now this young man is setting in prison. I don't remember if he got life or several years. Maybe someone here will remember. So therefore, this young man should probably get some time. He is just as guilty.

  • dukebbfan May 1, 2008

    I dont think that the willis family are racist. I'm sure they only want the people who had anything to do with this to be punished for there crime. If you read all the old info on this Deans(the white kid) only help provide an albi and help get rid of the gun. Meeks nevered named him as being there. I can understand if Johnson was scared of Meeks but why not go to the police as soon as Johnson dropped him off at home. Meeks would have been in jail that day and Johnson would have been safe. Oops I forgot he didnt want to be a snitch. That was a quote from Johnson on father. Look up some of the previous articles on this and you will see where that was said.

  • SaveEnergyMan May 1, 2008

    The prosecutor "will not take public interest or opinion" into consideration. How is the news? Trials are about facts, not opinions. In a perfect legal system (whatever that is) decisions are made on the facts only. Geez, do we have decisions being made on opinion and speculation in most cases, but for this case we're not? Let the prosecutor do his job, and if there is trial then we'll all get to hear the facts. Justice demands no less than the facts 100% of the time.

  • moonpie May 1, 2008

    I think he is only guilty of accessory AFTER the fact. I do not consider him a hero but he did do the right thing by turning in the murderer and he should he given credit for that. Any way you look at it, it is a tragedy and a young lady with lots of potential was brutally taken away.

  • mommy2caroline May 1, 2008

    James Johnson is not a hero. Period.

  • PACKFAN08 May 1, 2008

    This guy is NOT a Hero, he was involved in this murder. Why should he be hailed as a hero for telling who did it? He was part of the crime. NAACP, give me a break, this guy is not a hero, he was involved in this one way or another.

  • n2justice May 1, 2008

    I agree with whatusay. I believe that he will be credited with time served.

  • whatusay May 1, 2008

    SOCLOSE...My thought is very simple...give Johnson a "TRIAL". I think this special prosecutor wants to drop all charges and declare time served as Johnson's sentence. I don't know all the facts, but that is why a trial is needed. What I have seen is Johnson's involvement with Meeks, cleaning his "own" fingerprints from Willis's car, helping dispose of the car, and
    giving police information that only someone who was there would know. PUT HIM ON TRIAL.