Local News

Congressman Wants Federal Probe in James Johnson Case

Posted February 5, 2008 6:31 p.m. EST
Updated February 5, 2008 8:23 p.m. EST

— A congressman is asking the Department of Justice for a federal investigation into how a controversial murder case involving a Wilson man was initially handled.

In a letter dated Feb. 1 and addressed to the citizens of Wilson County, Rep. G.K. Butterfield Jr. said the state violated James Johnson's constitutional rights by holding the 21-year-old in jail for more three years on murder, rape and kidnapping charges without evidence.

Johnson was released from jail under a reduced bond last September, and Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster, a special prosecutor appointed to review the case, dismissed the charges in December.

Foster cited a lack of evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was involved in the 2004 shooting death of Brittany Willis, 17.

In January, a grand jury indicted Johnson on a lesser charge of accessory after the fact of first-degree murder.

Butterfield, who was a judge before running for office, blames "polarization and division in the community" on the judicial system for its failure to "exonerate a citizen when it was obvious that no evidence existed to convict."

"It is unconscionable and un-American that Johnson was made to languish in jail and the Willis family led to believe that sufficient evidence existed to convict Johnson when none existed," Butterfield wrote.

Butterfield, a Democrat who represents the state's first district, said that because the case is now headed to trial, he would not comment on the current charge.

Johnson has admitted to wiping his fingerprints off Willis' sport utility vehicle, but said that he was under duress at the time because another man, Kenneth Meeks, had showed him a gun.

Three days later, Johnson went to police. His father said his son struggled with breaking "the no-snitch rule of the streets."

Foster will not take the case to trial because of other matters unrelated to it. The Administrative Office of the Courts has asked the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys to help find another special prosecutor to prosecute the case.

The North Carolina conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has led a high-profile campaign to clear Johnson's name, saying the charges are unfounded and that he is innocent.

The NAACP maintains prosecutorial misconduct on the part of the Wilson prosecutors who originally handled the case.

Court records show no physical evidence connects Johnson to Willis' rape or death, and Meeks, who pleaded guilty to the crime in April 2006, has said Johnson was not involved in it.