Local News

Jury selection begins in James Johnson case

Posted February 9, 2009 5:52 a.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— Six potential jurors were interviewed Monday in Edgecombe County and three of them were chosen in the controversial case of a man accused of helping to cover up the shooting death of a Wilson teen.

Opening statements and testimony in James Johnson's trial are slated to begin as early as next week.

Johnson, 22, is charged with being an 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 the Brentwood Shopping Center, robbed, raped and shot to death.

Johnson was detained for more than three years on charges of murder, rape and kidnapping before he was released on bond in September 2007.

In December 2007, a special prosecutor ultimately dismissed those charges, but a grand jury indicted Johnson on the lesser charge in January 2008.

Pretrial publicity from allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and racial division over the case – Johnson is black, Willis was white – prompted Johnson's attorney to ask for a change of venue in the case. The judge denied the motion but agreed to bring in jurors from outside Wilson County.

The 12 jurors and two alternates will travel every day during the trial from Tarboro to Wilson.

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

Another man, Kenneth Meeks, pleaded guilty to Willis' slaying and is serving a life sentence in prison.

Johnson has admitted to wiping his fingerprints off Willis’ SUV 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, including the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, say Johnson should be hailed as a hero for turning in Meeks to police.

They want the case dropped.

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

They have said they have lost faith in the justice system.