RALEIGH, N.C. — A Forsyth County prosecutor will review a murder case involving a Wilson man who supporters say spent three years in jail awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit.
The Administrative Office of the Courts said Monday that Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster has been appointed as special prosecutor to evaluate the case against James Johnson and to decide whether he should be tried in the June 2004 murder of Brittany Willis, 17.
Johnson, along with another teenager, Kenneth Meeks, was arrested and charged with first-degree kidnapping, robbery, rape and murder after Willis was found dead in a field near the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson.
Meeks pleaded guilty in April 2006 and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Until Sept. 24, Johnson was in jail under a $1 million bond. He was released after a judge reduced the bond to $60,000.
The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, which claims Johnson was discriminated against, has been at the forefront of the high-profile campaign to dismiss the case because of a lack of evidence.
According to police statements in court records, a witness, who is now deceased, told police she saw a young blonde with two black men in the field where Willis was found.
Records show no DNA evidence from Johnson at the crime scene where Willis was found, however. Johnson also passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in the crime.
Johnson did admit to helping Meeks clean fingerprints off of Willis' sport utility vehicle, but said he was under duress and thought Meeks still might have had a weapon. He went to police three days later and reported the crime.
In a letter to The Wilson Daily Times earlier this year, Meeks admitted acting alone in the crime and said Johnson was innocent.
Arthur Johnson, James Johnson's father, said Meeks picked up his son in Willis' SUV after the crime but did not tell him where they were going.
Based on the lack of evidence, the NAACP pushed for the Wilson County District Attorney's Office to ask for a special prosecutor.
If Foster finds there is enough evidence to proceed with a trial, she would not be the one to prosecute it, because Forsyth District Attorney Tom Keith said his office, which is handling about four dozen murder cases, does not have the resources to do let Foster go for that long.
Keith said he and Foster will meet with officials in the Wilson County District Attorney's Office on Tuesday in an undisclosed location.
Foster served as district attorney in Rockingham County from 1993 to 2006 and is on a panel examining the Durham Police Department's handling of the Duke University lacrosse investigation.
She prosecuted North Carolina's 1000th executed inmate, Kenneth Boyd, who was convicted in the 1988 slayings of his wife and father-in-law.
Colleagues, such as Peg Dorer, the director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, call Foster a strong and ethical prosecutor who is very decisive and thorough.
"She's got a lot of experience," Dorer said. "She knows how to assess a case, and I'm confident she'll make a proper determination and do so as quickly as possible."
In a recent letter to The Wilson Daily Times, Willis' family said they supported the decision to appoint a special prosecutor, but added that they believe evidence in the case warrants a trial.