Local News

Wake jury to hear high-profile case in Wilson

Posted November 17, 2008

— A man accused of trying to cover up the shooting death of a Wilson teen four years ago was unsuccessful Monday in his effort to move his trial from the area because of the emotions and publicity generated on both sides of the case.

James Johnson, 22, is charged with accessory after the fact to first-degree murder in the June 2004 slaying of Brittany Willis. The 17-year-old was carjacked, taken to a field near Brentwood Shopping Center, robbed, raped and shot to death.

Defense attorney Irving Joyner filed motions Monday to dismiss the case and, in the alternative, to move the trial outside of Wilson County. He also filed a motion to pre-approve questions presented to potential jurors.

Special prosecutor W. David McFadyen agreed to the request for a change of venue, but Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch Jr. said he wanted to keep the trial in Wilson County. To ensure that pretrial publicity wouldn't affect the trial, the judge ordered that a jury be picked in Wake County and brought to Wilson.

No timetable was set Monday for trying the case, but Joyner said he expected the trial would begin early next year.

"We want to make sure this is not an environment that is intimidating or harrassing to any of the parties in the case or any of the jurors who might be brought up here (to Wilson) to hear the case," Joyner said.

Kenneth Meeks pleaded guilty last year to Willis' slaying and is serving a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. A third man, Julian Tyson Deans, is awaiting trial in the case on an accessory charge.

Meeks initially implicated Johnson in Willis' death, but he recanted that stance last year in a letter to The Wilson Daily Times. The letter touched off a public debate as to Johnson’s guilt or innocence.

Johnson was held in jail for more than three years on charges of murder, rape and kidnapping. Another special prosecutor assigned to review the case dismissed the charges last December and filed the accessory charge.

"It's been hard on the family, to say the least, but we're making it through," Johnson's mother, Beverly Johnson, said after leaving the courtroom Monday. "It doesn't feel like it, but I know everything ends at some point or another."

James Johnson has long maintained he wasn't involved in killing Willis. According to police and court records, no physical evidence connects him to the rape or homicide.

He admitted to wiping his fingerprints off Willis’ sport utility vehicle but said he did it under duress because Meeks showed him a gun. He went to police about the crime three days later.

Johnson's 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 credited with turning in 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.

"It's a shame that it's been four years and for neither family having closure has been an injustice in and of itself," said Emma Wilson, a friend of the Willis family. "I guess the wheels of justice are grinding ever so slowly, and that's unfortunate."


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  • DontLikeTheSocialistObama Nov 18, 2008

    Seeing that the Raleigh TV market serves Wilson and has had all of the news about this on TV, a Wake jury is just as prejudiced as a Wilson jury.

  • Just thinking Nov 18, 2008

    No one has mentioned the third person involved - Meeks, and how he was ordered by an earlier judge to stay "out of Wilson" until his trial, which has yet to happen. Meeks is charged with the count of accessory and did not spend 3yrs in jail.

  • whatusay Nov 18, 2008

    Johnson admits wiping "his own finger prints off vehicle". If he was not involved how did his own finger prints get on/in the vehicle? There were witnesses that saw Meeks and Johnson together (and one witness has died). Johnson came forward to try to save his own neck by turning Meeks in and look like a "3 day late here".

  • ncweddingdj.com Nov 17, 2008

    I read the post about the trail being moved and am lost. What exactly does that mean? Is there a trail between Wilson and Raleigh? We just moved here....

  • whatusay Nov 17, 2008

    If two border law enforcement officers in Texas can get 14 years in prison for shooting a drug smuggler entering the U.S. illegally I think Johnson should get 25 years for accessory to murder.

  • aintbackingdwn Nov 17, 2008

    I find it amazing you all constantly harp on looking past skin color and yet that's exactly what Obama was elected on.

  • G-man Nov 17, 2008

    The information he admitted proves he was an accessory after the fact. Forced to help clean up by threat??? I got some ocean front property in Arkansas too.

  • bill0 Nov 17, 2008

    He definitely hasn't admitted guilt. He claims the murderer flashed his gun and told him to help clean up the crime scene. He claims he didn't have anything to do with the actual murder, only helped in the aftermath because he was threatened, and later turned the guy in. By his account, he isn't guilty as an accessory because he was threatened.

    The sticking point for a jury would be the 3 days he waited. If he had come right in, he would certainly be acquitted. As is, it is a bit of a tossup as to whether people will think he really was rightfully afraid for his life at the time or if he only changed his tune when he found out their was an award. To me, the bottom line is that he came forward on his own (or with his family.) He wasn't caught by the police and making up stories to save his skin. If he hadn't have come forward voluntarily, the case may never have been solved and he wouldn't have spent a minute in jail. Guilty people don't usually call the cops on themselves.

  • G-man Nov 17, 2008

    He has already admitted guilt. Nothing left but the sentencing really.

  • in2horses Nov 17, 2008

    How can you not look past skin color???? If it had been the other was around ( white guy Rapeing and killing a black girl) the NAACP would be ready to have a lynching!!