— Kenneth Meeks
is settling into a life at Foothills Correctional Institution. At age 20, however, he has not accepted the reality of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"I understand the life part, but when they say life without parole, they're basically trying to say that you're in there, you're not going to get out unless you die," Meeks said in an exclusive interview
with Fox 50's NC Wanted. "And that's the only way you're getting out."
Convicted in April 2006 of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Brittany Willis, Meeks says his actions are the reason another man, James Johnson, is now facing charges in the case – charges of which Meeks has said Johnson is innocent.
"If I would have never been stupid enough to do what I did, he would have never been put in that situation," Meeks said.
Police have said that Meeks and Johnson allegedly carjacked Willis at the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson in June 2004 and took her to a nearby field, where they robbed, raped and shot her.
Both were charged with first-degree murder, rape and kidnapping. Meeks pleaded guilty; Johnson was jailed for more than three years under a $1 million bond. (A third person, Julian Tyson Deans, 22, is also charged with accessory after the fact. He has been out of jail since 2004 and has not gone to trial.)
Amid a high-profile campaign by the North Carolina conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to dismiss the charges, Johnson, 21, was released on a reduced bond in September.
A special prosecutor dismissed the original charges in December after finding a lack of evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Johnson, however, still faces a charge of being an accessory to murder after the fact to murder. He maintains his innocence, and the NAACP has insisted Johnson be treated as a witness, not a participant in the crime.
"I'm happy for him," Meeks said. "I hope he can go to college, like he's been trying to do."
Johnson has long insisted he is innocent, and no physical evidence connected him to the homicide or rape.
He turned in Meeks to police three days later for the crime after, he said, Meeks took him to the crime scene to see the body. Under duress, Johnson said, he helped clean Meeks' fingerprints off Willis' sport utility vehicle.
It was an April 24 handwritten letter to The Wilson Daily Times proclaiming Johnson's innocence that touched off public debate as to Johnson's innocence or guilt.
Meeks wrote it after "reading the newspaper, and seeing how they kept putting (Johnson) down when he was trying to build himself up and move on from this situation," he said.
In the letter, Meeks said that holding Johnson was "a crime in itself."
The NAACP has alleged misconduct on the part of the Wilson prosecutors who originally handled the case, and U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield Jr. has claimed the state violated Johnson's constitutional rights and has asked for a federal investigation into the case.
As for Willis' death, a stoic Meeks never mentioned it directly during the NC Wanted interview, referring to it with words such as "the incident" or "situation."
He, however, did offer an apology to Willis' family and said he regretted it.
"I don't know how I allowed myself to get to that point," he said. "I regret everything about it. I wish I would have stayed home that day."