WILSON, N.C. — The criminal case surrounding Brittany Willis' death has become more about political motives and race rather than bringing her killer or killers to justice, her family said in a letter to The Wilson Daily Times.
"(The) focus of the events has switched from the kidnap(ping), robbery, rape and murder of Brittany to the so-call(ed) injustice that has been done to James Johnson," the family said.
In the letter, published in the paper's Dec. 29 issue, Willis' family also expressed its disappointment in how the 3-year-old homicide case has been handled in recent months. (Read the letter.
"The facts of the case are simple," the family said. "One day, two teenage boys did something horrible and kidnapped Brittany. One has taken responsibility for his actions and the other continues to deny his involvement and let the NAACP do his talking."
Willis was a 17-year-old high-school soccer player who, according to investigators, was a victim of robbery and had been raped and shot to death on June 28, 2004. Her body was found in a field near the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson.
James Johnson, 18 at the time, and Kenneth Meeks were arrested and charged with first-degree murder and other charges in the case. Meeks later pleaded guilty to the crime.
Johnson, who has maintained his innocence in the crime, spent three years in jail under a $1 million bond awaiting trial. He was released from jail under a reduced bond in September amid a high-profile campaign by the North Carolina conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to have the case dismissed.
The NAACP has claimed racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct and constitutional rights violations against Johnson. It has said that Johnson should be seen as a hero who helped solve the case.
Race is not an issue, the family said, adding "nothing could be further from the truth."
The Willises said North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber and U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C. — who on the NAACP's behalf, requested a federal investigation into whether Johnson's constitutional rights were violated —"have injected that belief" into the case to sway public opinion.
"The NAACP's actions and the news media's bias(ed) coverage of everything they have done have resulted in this case being forced to be disposed of as quickly as possible by our elected officials," the Willis family said.
The letter also criticizes Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster, the special prosecutor in the case. Willis' family said in the letter that Foster told them Johnson "was definitely involved more than he admits" and that she told the family "the charges were correct," that "enough evidence was present and the case would be pursued."
"Unfortunately, due to the politics that have come into play, she has changed her story, and the charges against James Johnson have been almost completely done away with," the letter said.
Foster dismissed the charges against Johnson because of a lack of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he assisted in the crime. She did charge him with a reduced charge of accessory after the fact to murder.
Johnson has denied being involved in the crime but admitted to helping clean evidence from the crime scene. He has maintained he was under duress at the time.
The Willis family could not be reached for comment Monday. Neither could Foster.
The North Carolina NAACP's attorney, Al McSurely, said he hopes the Willis family can look at the evidence and see the original charges against Johnson were a "miscarriage of justice."
"The family has suffered a tremendous loss," he said. "Everyone was led to believe by the Wilson County authorities for three years that James Johnson was involved, and I can understand their disappointment."
Butterfield's communications director, Ken Willis, denied any political influence from the congressman.
"Mr Butterfield was contacted by the NAACP to help resolve the murder charge against James Johnson," he said. "Three years is a long time to be in jail for a crime that he didn’t commit."
North Carolina Central University law professor Irving Joyner, who will head Johnson's legal team, said in a statement he understands the Willises' grief but that the criminal prosecution should be based on admissible evidence and "not on speculation, surmise, conjecture and belief."
"The strength and credibility of the state's evidence do not change nor should it be viewed differently just because people in the community feel, without legal training and an objective review, that the evidence should produce a different result," Joyner said.
Johnson is scheduled to be in court Friday for a probable cause hearing.