Local News

NAACP, Relatives Petition State Leaders Before Teen's Murder Trial

Posted September 21, 2007 2:14 p.m. EDT
Updated September 22, 2007 3:16 p.m. EDT

— Before James Johnson goes on trial for the 2004 murder of a Wilson teenager on Monday, his supporters are leaning on state leaders to step in for a defendant they believe is the victim of retribution.

Investigators said Johnson and Kenneth Meeks kidnapped Brittany Willis, 17, from a parking lot and robbed, raped and shot her in a field on Westshire Drive near the Brentwood Shopping Center.

Supporters of Johnson, however, say he's the victim of Kenneth Meeks, who initially told police that Johnson was involved in the abduction and murder. Johnson, a friend of Meeks, turned the other teenager into police.

"It's time to free James Johnson and let him come home and start his life. It's time to drop the murder charges," said Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Johnson has been held in the Wilson County jail for three years while waiting trial. He was allowed a $1 million secured bond after prosecutors stopped seeking the death penalty in December 2006. To be released, Johnson would have to come up with as much as 15 percent through a bail bondsman, a sheriff's office's spokesperson said.

On Friday, NAACP members, armed with stacks of petitions, arrived at the Governor's Office and asked for an outside assessment of the case.

"Hundreds of people have signed these petitions," Barber said.

Franklin Freeman, a senior aide to Gov. Mike Easley, spent 40 minutes talking with supporters. Although the Governor's Office does not have authority in the case, a spokesperson for the governor called the talks polite and productive.

Johnson's supporters have also filed complaints with the State Bar against Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe, who's been involved in the case. Johnny Gaskin, Johnson's public defender when it was a capital case, told WRAL that he doesn't think there is any evidence of prosecutable misconduct on the part of Wolfe.

Wilson District Attorney Howard Boney Jr. will not comment on the case.

"There's a fog over North Carolina's justice system," Barber said.

Bob Hurley, the N.C. capital defender, said Johnson's case was delayed, in part, because it was a death-penalty case for so long. Johnson's case has exceeded the average 18 to 24 months for a capital case to get to trial, but the delay is not unprecedented.

Hurley pointed to a case in Robeson that took 4½ years to get to trail. The N.C. Supreme Court ruled that time was not a violation of the defendant's right to a speedy trial.

Johnson's family question the evidence against him and the more than three years it has taken to bring him to trial.

"We want justice, not one, but for all," James's father, Arthur Johnson, said.

The murder case has been slow moving from the start, as 95 pieces of evidence were analyzed over a two-year period. Some reports from the State Bureau of Investigation and Federal Bureau of Investigation came back as late as January 2006.

The two suspects were indicted nine months after the crime, and conflicts with attorney's schedules also caused delays.

While pleading guilty in the summer of 2006, Meeks recanted his accusation of Johnson and said he was mad at his friend for turning him in. He said he acted alone.

Police dogs sniffed Johnson's presence at the crime scene. Eyewitnesses told police they saw two black men with Willis on the day she died, according to court records.

Those records also show DNA evidence from Willis's body links Meeks – but not Johnson – to the crime scene. Johnson also passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in the kidnapping, rape and murder.

Johnson was a star soccer player at Fike High School in Wilson. Willis had just graduated from Hunt High School before her murder. Both were enrolled in college for the following fall.