Local News

Hundreds Show at Court to Support Slain Wilson Teen

Posted January 4, 2008 10:09 a.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2008 11:45 p.m. EST

— More than 300 people showed up at court Friday morning to show their support for a 17-year-old Wilson girl who was shot to death more than three years ago.

The courtroom was filled to capacity, and scores of supporters of Brittany Willis waited in the hall during a probable cause hearing for James Johnson, who's charged with accessory after the fact to murder in the case.

"We're thrilled to death of all the support and thank everybody for coming out," Willis' father, Randy Willis, said "We're still not completely satisfied with what's going on, but we thank everybody for the support."

Johnson's attorneys waived their right to the hearing, and prosecutors were expected to present the case to a grand jury on Jan. 14.

Willis' body was found on June 28, 2004, in a field near Brentwood Shopping Center. Investigators said she had been raped and that robbery was a motive for the crime.

Another man, Kenneth Meeks, is serving a life sentence in prison, and Johnson was detained for more than three years on charges of murder, rape and kidnapping before being released in September on a reduced bond.

A special prosecutor dropped those charges last month after re-examining the case and finding a lack of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Johnson assisted in the crime.

Friday's turnout was the first of its kind in support of Willis.

“Justice should be done,” one supporter said. “I think it should be fair. (Johnson) should be going to trial.”

The North Carolina conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has led a high-profile campaign to dismiss all charges against Johnson and has spoken publicly several times about the case, claiming racial discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct and saying Johnson should be viewed as a hero for helping authorities solve the crime.

Willis' family had said very little publicly about the case until last week, when it wrote a letter to The Wilson Daily Times expressing its disappointment and criticizing the NAACP, media and others for the way the case has been portrayed.

"We have lost all confidence in our justice system, and even more unfortunate, so have so many other people here in North Carolina," the letter said, in part.

In comments on WRAL.com Thursday, posters called out to others to turn out to show their support and concern for how the case has been handled– "no speaking, no signs, just support for Brittany," they read. Other media outlets reported similar requests.

Willis supporters expressed disdain for the way the case has been handled recently and believe Johnson played more of a role in the crime than he is charged with.

“I feel like he had something to do with what happened that day, whether it was after the fact or anything,” Willis family friend Stacie Irby said. “And I just feel like justice needs to be served.”

“We just want the court system to know there is another side, and we do support the family,” Cecilia Irby said.

Johnson has maintained his innocence on all charges, saying Meeks picked him up in Willis' sport utility vehicle and took him to see her body.

He has also said that he was afraid for his own life after Meeks showed him a gun and drove him to a car wash. Under duress, Johnson said, he wiped his own fingerprints off the SUV.

He went to police three days later. Johnson's father said his son struggled with breaking what he called "the no-snitch rule of the streets."

Outside court Friday, the NAACP state president, Rev. William J. Barber II, said the organization's members "have always and still do, express concern, sympathy and pray for the loss of Brittany Willis and the grief of her family."

"Our fight from day one has been against the system that would mislead the community, (and) the family and wrongly incarcerate an innocent young man," he said.

Heckled by some Willis supporters, he called once again for the remaining charge against Johnson to be dismissed, calling it a "last-ditch effort to smear" Johnson's name.

“Their anger should not be at us,” Barber said. “Their anger should be at the system that misled them.”