Local News

Congressman Wants Answers About James Johnson Case

Posted December 10, 2007 2:59 p.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2007 9:51 p.m. EST

— A U.S. congressman who says he is concerned about the manner in which a Wilson man's murder case is being prosecuted is now asking the state court system for more information about the case.

In a letter dated Dec. 10 to the Administrative Office of the Courts, Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., wants to know who is responsible for the case of James Johnson and what the deadline is for a decision whether the case will go to trial.

"These are the questions that constituents are asking me every day," Butterfield said Monday.

In his two-page letter, Butterfield, an attorney and former judge, writes that Johnson is "living in a state of uncertainty, and his right to a speedy trial is being violated."

Arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Brittany Willis, Johnson, 21, spent three years in jail under a $1 million bond until September, when his bond was reduced to $60,000.

The Wilson County District Attorney's Office also asked for a special prosecutor to evaluate the case and determine whether it should go to trial

In October, Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster was appointed to evaluate the case, but scheduling conflicts make it unlikely she would be the one to prosecute it if it goes to trial.

"I have very little information about the special prosecutor," Butterfield said. "While I know her as an individual – and she is a fine attorney – I do not know what her responsibility is. I don't know if she is the chief 'pros' in the case, vested with the authority to make prosecutorial decisions, or whether she is simply a lawyer evaluating the evidence."

Last week, Butterfield sent another letter to the U.S. Attorney General asking for a federal probe in the matter, saying Johnson's rights have been violated and pointing out that Johnson's bond was reduced after serving more than three years in pre-trial confinement.

He said the probe is necessary to protect Johnson's civil rights and to restore public confidence in the criminal justice system.

"Right now, justice is not being administered," Butterfield said. "If the district attorney is not on the case and the attorney general is not on the case, who's in charge?"

Johnson also faces kidnapping, robbery and rape charges, but has maintained he was not involved in the crime.

A second man, Kenneth Meeks, was arrested in the case and pleaded guilty last year. In a letter to The Wilson Daily Times, he said he acted alone and that all evidence in the case proved Johnson's innocence.

Court records show no DNA evidence from Johnson at the crime scene where Willis was found. He also passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in committing the crime.

"I don't know if James Johnson is guilty or innocent, (but) all the press reports seem to suggest it is innocent," Butterfield said.

"If the state has other evidence, then the state needs to come forward and prosecute this case," he added. "If the state does not have sufficient evidence, then the case needs to be dismissed."

Johnson did admit to helping Meeks clean fingerprints off 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.

"First-degree murder charges are routinely dismissed if there is no evidence, and they are routinely tried if there is evidence," Butterfield said. "But to hold the victim's family in suspense and to hold the defendant in suspense – and this community – is wrong."

"Cases differ, but no case should take more than three years to be brought to trial," Butterfield said. "The family of the victim in this case don't deserve that. The accused does not deserve it. And the Wilson community does not deserve it. And this case must be brought to an end for many reasons."