Local News

What's Next in the James Johnson Case?

Posted December 20, 2007 7:11 p.m. EST
Updated December 20, 2007 7:52 p.m. EST

— Why James Johnson waited three days before going to police when he says he helped another man clean evidence at a murder scene is one of many factors a judge or jury would have to consider if the new case goes to trial.

"If he had immediately gone to law enforcement – with or without an attorney, with or without his father – and said, 'This man forced me to do that,' he probably would have been in a much better position," former federal prosecutor Dan Boyce, now a defense attorney, said.

Johnson, 21, was charged Wednesday with accessory after the fact to first-degree murder in connection with the 2004 death of Brittany Willis, 17.

Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster was appointed as a special prosecutor to review evidence in the case. She determined there was not enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson assisted Kenneth Meeks in committing Willis' death.

The basis for the new charge is one in which Johnson has admitted – that he helped Meeks after seeing Willis' body. Johnson claimed that he was under duress from Meeks.

Initially, Meeks told police Johnson played a role in Willis's death but recanted that statement earlier this year in a letter to a Wilson newspaper, saying Johnson was innocent and all evidence proved it.

The arrest warrant issued Wednesday alleges that Johnson knowingly assisted Meeks to escape by wiping Willis's vehicle down with baby wipes, "thus destroying forensic evidence" in the case.

Johnson was arrested and detained in jail for more than three years on charges of first-degree murder, rape, kidnapping and robbery.

His supporters, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, have maintained Johnson's innocence and said that he should be treated as a witness, a not criminal, and that prosecutors ignored key evidence that proved his innocence.

"Our position is that all charges need to be dismissed, and James needs to be honored as a hero," NAACP North Carolina chapter President Rev. William Barber said.

Why Wilson County District Attorney Howard Boney and Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe continued with the case is still unclear. Both have refused to comment, and the NAACP has filed a grievance with the North Carolina State Bar about the matter.

Meanwhile, Johnson's first court appearance on the new charge is scheduled for Friday. It is unclear whether the original prosecutors will be involved in the new case.

Foster was appointed only to review the case. It is unclear whether the original prosecutors will be involved in the new case.

According to the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, "in the event a decision is made to take the case to trial, then a new out-of-district prosecutor will need to be appointed."

The NAACP is expected to hold a news conference following the court appearance on Friday.