Former DA defends handling of James Johnson case
Posted May 4, 2009
Tarboro, N.C. — Wilson County's outgoing district attorney says he believes his office handled the controversial prosecution of James Johnson appropriately, despite allegations of wrongdoing against the assistant district attorney who handled the case.
"I've never had an accusation of professional misconduct or handling (in my office)," Howard Boney said Thursday, his last day in office after serving for 31 years as prosecutor for the 7th Prosecutorial District, which also includes Nash and Edgecombe counties.
"So, it's certainly not supported by any prior conduct. I would state emphatically that we did not conduct ourselves in any way that's inconsistent with the law."
Wilson County authorities detained Johnson, 22, for 39 months on charges of rape, murder, robbery and kidnapping in the June 2004 death of 17-year-old Brittany Tyler Willis.
The district attorney's office ultimately handed the case over to a special prosecutor, and the criminal case ended earlier this year when Johnson entered a plea to a charge of failing to notify authorities of a crime.
But it garnered attention from the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which claimed race was a factor in the case, and at least one U.S. lawmaker seeking further investigation into the matter.
Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe handled the case, but Boney said he was always familiar with how it was being handled. Wolfe has never commented on the case; Boney spoke publicly for the first time Thursday.
"I don't feel like we were responsible for the longevity of that case. That seems to be one of the biggest complaints," Boney said. "A lot of the criticisms were non-meritorious."
Still unwilling to comment on specifics about his office's prosecution or why Wolfe moved forward with the case despite evidence that cast doubt on the belief Johnson was involved, Boney said it took more than a year for DNA results that were in favor of Johnson.
"Had we tried that case before it came back, he would definitely have a complaint and a grounds for appeal," Boney said. "We were always prepared. We never asked for any continuances."
Alleging prosecutorial misconduct, the NAACP filed a complaint against Wolfe with the North Carolina State Bar. The details of that complaint, however, haven’t been publicly released.
Boney, though, defends Wolfe and denies any wrongdoing.
"I didn't see any problem. Mr. Wolfe is a very excellent assistant district attorney," he said. "That's one of the things I'm proud of. We have a staff I'd put up against any in North Carolina."
The Johnson case was only one in a longstanding career that produced several firsts. "I don't think my 41-year history ought to be measured by this one case," Boney said.
Gov. Jim Hunt appointed Boney to the post in January 1978. He won election that November and was re-elected seven times.
Boney was the first district attorney in the state to develop a victim-witness program that keeps victims and witnesses in close contact with the district attorney's office to help them navigate the legal system.
He was also the first to establish child justice centers to serve child-abuse victims and their families.
While on the job, the district attorney's office staff grew from five to 41 employees – three assistant district attorneys to 19 – and offices in every county.
Trying cases was the best part about his job, he said, although his post prevented him from being in the courtroom in recent years. He remembers the challenges of trying cases against some of what he calls the best defense lawyers there are.
"Most of the time, the state prevailed, and I'm proud of that," he said.
Boney fought more than criminals during his career. He successfully battled cancer more than seven years ago, crediting his recovery to prayer and community support.
His retirement comes after no easy decision, and despite speculation that medical problems prompted his decision, he said he spent a year considering to step aside so that someone else could have the opportunity.
"Johnny Carson left while he was on top," Boney said, adding that he plans to travel and practice law privately. "I feel like I'm leaving while I'm on top."
Earlier this week, Gov. Bev Perdue appointed District Judge Robert Evans as Boney's replacement. He will serve out Boney's four-year term and could seek re-election next year.
Evans practiced law for 22 years in Rocky Mount before he was appointed to the bench in 1999.
"I think he'll do an excellent job, having been a judge and seeing how the system works," Boney said. "He's a very smart, capable person."