Local News

James Johnson pleads guilty in Willis murder case

Posted February 16, 2009
Updated March 9, 2009

— A Wilson man accused of helping to cover up the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl nearly five years ago pleaded guilty Monday to a lesser charge of failing to report the crime.

James Arthur Johnson, 22, entered an Alford plea to attempted misprision of a felony in connection with the June 2004, slaying of Brittany Tyler Willis.

James Johnson Web only: James Johnson guilty plea (Feb. 16, 2009)

The charge is punishable by a maximum of 15 months in prison, but Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch gave Johnson a prayer for judgment continued.

That means the court did not impose a punishment. Johnson, who was held for more than three years after his arrest, will not face additional jail time. If he is ever charged with another crime or convicted of a crime, he could still be sentenced in the Willis case.

"The prayer for judgment, while not a final determination, is a scarlet letter that will hang with (Johnson) forever and a day," Fitch said. "PJC is not appealable, nor is it expungeable."

In an Alford plea, a defendant pleads guilty, while maintaining his or her innocence, and admits it is in his or her best interest to take the plea deal, because there is sufficient evidence that could find him or her guilty. A misprision of a felony means failing to notify authorities of a crime.

Monday's plea brings an end to the high-profile case, which has been riddled with accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and injustice, as well as racial division in the Wilson community – Johnson is black; Willis was white.

"We are satisfied with what happened here today," Willis' father, Randy Willis, said after Monday's plea. "We are just ready to move forward and find some closure."

"It's been hard for everyone, both sides, and there are no winners in all this," Johnson's father, Arthur Johnson, said. "To a certain degree, we all lost."

Willis was kidnapped from the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson on June 28, 2004, and driven in her SUV to a field where she was raped, shot once in the back and once in the head.

Johnson and another man, Kenneth Meeks, were initially charged with murder, rape and kidnapping in the case. A third man, Julian Tyson Deans, was charged with accessory after the fact to first-degree murder but has never gone to trial.

Meeks plead guilty in April 2006. In a May 2007 letter to The Wilson Daily Times, he said Johnson was innocent.

Even though there was no physical evidence that linked him to the crime, Johnson spent 39 months in jail under a $1 million bond until he was released on reduced bond in September 2007.

A special prosecutor dismissed the charges in December 2007, but charged him with one count of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.

"Anything I do today will not bring Brittany Willis back. Anything I do today will not give the defendant Johnson his 39 months back," Fitch said Monday.

Johnson's admitted to investigators that he wiped fingerprints off Willis' SUV, but said that he was under duress because Meeks showed him a gun.

He went to Wilson police three days later. According to court documents, Meeks has said that is why he initially blamed Johnson.

Special prosecutor David McFadyen argued Monday that although Johnson should get credit for coming forward, he still waited after seeing the crime scene. He saw his father shortly afterward and never said anything.

Johnson's attorney, Irving Joyner, argued that Johnson's life was "irrevocably changed" the day he was arrested.

Eighteen at the time, Johnson, with no criminal record, had recently graduated high school and was preparing to go to college on a soccer scholarship, Joyner said.

He knew nothing of Willis' death, Joyner said, until after Meeks picked up Johnson at his house and told him about it as they drove away.

Without Johnson going to police, investigators might not have ever solved the case, Joyner said, and he added that Johnson's actions did not, in any way, cause harm to Willis.

"I think he did do the right thing," Fitch said Monday. "I'm just sorry it took him the length of time to do it."

Other than the statement Monday, Willis' family has spoken very little about the case. They have expressed disappointment in the justice system through a December 2007 letter to the Wilson Daily Times.

Johnson's supporters, who include the state NAACP, will hold a news conference Wednesday morning and a prayer service Wednesday evening.

"This has been a long sojourn for the Johnson family, James and the community," state NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber said in a statement.

"Now, finally, James can move on with his life, go back to school and live beyond what was thrust upon him. And perhaps, the community at large can heal."


This story is closed for comments.

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  • skepticscot Feb 19, 2009

    I am very disappointed in the NAACP and this so called Reverend who has shown no sympathy toward the victim's family. Also, a hero is someone who acts to save a life, Rev. Not someone who wipes away fingerprints and hides facts. That is called aiding and abetting. Nothing heroic in that. This family has lost a child. This young man is getting an ill deserved second chance. Rev, I would like you to hypothetically change the crime to a young black woman and 2 white dudes? Would you still say the one who wiped off the prints and drove around in the girls car is a hero. No need to answer-you would be there protesting for a big double hanging. So there. Rascism is alive and well in the NAACP.

  • alx Feb 17, 2009

    luvdolphin2 he is guilty of covering up a rape & murder.. get your facts right while you defend a model of society & ignore the dead girl, you're real classy

  • ccacrabbitdog Feb 17, 2009

    hope he learned a lesson but i don't think so....we'll c him n trouble again...because" if u can't change your friends..u need to change your friends".......think about it.....

  • dukebbfan Feb 17, 2009

    What I think people seem to forget,since this happened 5 years ago, is that when Meeks and Johnson were both charged they were both stating the other had committed this crime. I'm pretty certain that the dna evidence had not come back yet. LEO gives all there evidence that they have collected to the da/ the DA decides what charges are filed or what should be changed. As far as Johnson staying in jail for so long part of that problem was that he had a lawyer that kept asking for a continuance.

  • realowboy Feb 17, 2009

    If the maximum sentence is 15 months and he has already been locked up for 39 months. Why is there a need for a plea bargin and the risk of being sentenced again later? Why is the sentence not just time served?

  • kim king Feb 17, 2009

    Everone is quick to pull the race card when it fits. There was a white girl killed and 2 black men charged one got out, years ago white men killed black girls all the time and no one went to jail. someone up here says they cant get a job at firestone cause they only hire blacks, well whites are in the hiring position so talk to them and see what they think, go to parkers white owned and see y only blacks and hispanics work the back door. Someone else asked how would you feel, I know how they feel 1 county over more racist is Johnston, my dad a bondsman was killed and they let the guy go after 1 year saying not enough evidence, now that is unsolved, my cousin killed by her baby father poured acid over her in her house and they knock his charge down to 2nd degree from an alford plea, so yea I know how they feel, but at some point color should not matter and justice should, they have justice, they have a closing to this. If they are happy who are we to complain.

  • Seeminglyopposed Feb 17, 2009

    This message board is unbelievable. Its a shame that the NAACP had to get involved with this case at all, because it is not the fact that this young man did not murder this young lady, it is the fact that this organization was involved. The real focus has been lost from the life of this young man and the lost of this lady to hate for the NAACP. You have mass murderers who are out on lesser bonds than this young man was held. If things are treated fairly from the beginning, this type of situation would not occur.

    The world takes one step forward and 50 steps backwards each and every time a post is so full of discrimination and hatred of people of different ethnicity. SO SO SAD....

  • Duke _Nukem Feb 17, 2009

    Noooo. Say it isn't so. An innocent man pleading guilty to a crime he didn't commit. Where's the NAACP? Sounds like a certain group jumped the gun AGAIN in proclaiming the innocence of a person they don't even know.

  • elhj83 Feb 17, 2009

    The police had lots of evidence AGAINST Johnson which proved not only did he cover it up but he helped commit the murder. For one thing, they had 2 eye witness reports of seeing Meeks, Johnson and Willis together at the shopping center (obviously before she was murdered), but the new DA was afraid if she admitted he was guilty in the case, that the NAACP would smear her name through the mud. So there you go...a civil rights group interferred with justice.

    The Willis family said they were satisfied with the outcome, but how many of you actually believe that?!?! You know they have seen all of the evidence and they know that one of their daughter's murderers is walking free.

    BTW...all this evidence has been released publicly.

    God Bless Brittany Willis & her family....forget the NAACP!

  • ncrebel Feb 17, 2009

    Haggis basher.........you need to run for Wilson County Government. You would fit right in!