Local News

Wilson Murder Suspect Out on Bond; Special Prosecutor to Be Appointed

Posted September 24, 2007 10:52 a.m. EDT
Updated September 24, 2007 9:55 p.m. EDT

— James Johnson's release from jail on bond Monday capped an emotional day that also saw approval granted for a special prosecutor to be appointed in the case against him for the 2004 rape and murder of Britanny Willis.

Superior Court Judge John Smith put Johnson's trial on hold while the the state Attorney General's Office agreed to work with the Wilson County District Attorney's Office to hand over the case to a special prosecutor.

Johnson walked out of jail for the first time in three years after Smith reduced his bond from $1 million to $60,000. He thanked his supporters, family and detention officers for treating him well.

"It got the attorney general's office, the governor's office to look at this and say, 'Oh, my God," James' father, Arthur Johnson, said.

The murder case has at times divided the community. While Johnson's family celebrated, Willis' relatives and friends experienced a difficult day. Her parents were present at the court proceedings but declined to comment.

Some of her former classmates wore ribbons while they waited and watched outside the courthouse.

"The community's really hurt by this, and some of it we just don't think is fair," Brittney Forbes said.

"We're constantly reminded of it all the time. We're ready for it to be over, ready for justice to be served, basically," Sommer Tomlinson said.

A joint motion for a special prosecutor was filed by the Wilson County District Attorney's office and defense attorneys. Smith said he "believed public confidence will be enhanced with the outcome from the special prosecutors on the case."

It will take a few days for the Administrative Office of the Courts to appoint a special prosecutor. A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said it believes the case deserves a fresh look.

Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter, called the decision "revolutionary" and "historic" for North Carolina. He pointed to such cases as that of Darryl Hunt, who spent 18 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction.

"(The decision) affords us the opportunity to do right before a prosecutorial wrong is done," Barber said. "We recognize this was the only way to have confidence in the judicial system."

Willis' friends said they welcomed the appointment of a special prosecutor and hoped it would help get down to what happened to their friend.

"They just need to go with the evidence, because that's the only proof that they have. And there were no witnesses," Forbes said.

Johnson's family indicated they're eager to continue the legal process with Johnson released.

"This is just the first leg. Now, James has to vindicate himself," Arthur Johnson said, "but at least this way, he can do it from this side of the walls, where he belonged the whole time."

Barber called Smith's decisions the first steps in what the NAACP hopes to make a long-ranging reform of the justice system. Supporters of Johnson announced that their local chapter of the NAACP will become official as of Tuesday.

"The kinds of steps that have been taken today, the kind of light that's being brought to the dark realities of the injustices of our systems that are often 'permeated' on the basis of race and class, is not just good for James, but ... will be good for all of us," he said. "And I believe that ultimately, when we make the justice system better, God is pleased."

At a evening press conference, supporters of Johnson reached out to Willis' family.

"We are not here to gloat. And the joy that you have seen, the smiles are not in any way a dis-concern for the family or the slain daughter of this community, Brittany Willis," Barber said.

"We know it for a fact that this has been something that has divided the community, but we pray now that it's something that will begin to heal our community," Rev. Elton Powell, a supporter of Johnson, said.

Johnson's mother said she was looking forward to their first meal as a reunited family. An obviously emotional Johnson gave thanks to his family for their support during the three years he spent in jail.

"First of all, I'd like to thank God for being by my side and helping me maintain my sanity and my strength," he said.

Authorities said Willis, 17, was kidnapped from the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson. They said she was later robbed, raped and shot to death in a field on Westshire Drive.

Police arrested and charged Johnson and Kenneth Meeks with Willis' death. Meeks pleaded guilty to killing Willis in April 2006 in a deal in which he would spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Meeks also wrote a letter to the Wilson Daily Times, claiming he "committed the crime alone and James Johnson is innocent." He said he had earlier accused  Johnson because he was upset at his friend's turning him in to authorities.

Court records show Johnson passed a polygraph test, and there has been no DNA to connect him to the crime. Records also show dogs tracked Johnson's scent to the crime scene.

Johnson admitted he was at the scene, but said Meeks took him there to show him the girl's body. Johnson also passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in the kidnapping, rape and murder.