Local News

James Johnson Case Moves Forward With New Prosecutor

Posted March 11, 2008 7:40 a.m. EDT
Updated March 15, 2008 5:50 p.m. EDT

— A retired North Carolina district attorney who will serve as special prosecutor in the high-profile, controversial case against James Johnson says it needs to come to a resolution and that his decision about how to proceed will be based only on the facts.

"My charges are to review this case independently and make a decision based on the facts and the evidence and the application of the law. And that's exactly what I'll do," W. David McFadyen Jr. said Tuesday. "I'll start back in the beginning just as if this crime had just occurred."

Johnson, 21, was detained for more than three years on first-degree murder, rape and kidnapping charges in the 2004 rape and shooting death of 17-year-old Brittany Willis.

In December, a special prosecutor dismissed those charges, citing a lack of evidence, and charged Johnson on a lesser count of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.

McFadyen, prosecuted cases for 26 years in Craven, Carteret and Pamlico counties. He retired in 2006 and entered private practice at Valentine & McFadyen in New Bern.

"It's a very serious matter that needs to be resolved for everybody's benefit," he said. "And I believe that I can take the time and will be able to take the time that's necessary to review this case and try to move it forward."

Peg Dorer, director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said McFadyen was appointed to the case, partially, because his status as a private attorney means he has more flexibility in his schedule to examine it and conduct interviews.

"It's not a situation where someone can just go in and handle this case in a week," Dorer said. "They're going to need to pour through all the materials and talk with all the witnesses and prepare for whatever way they decide to take this case."

The case and how it's been handled has caused division in the Wilson community, drawing vocal supporters of both Johnson and Willis; and Dorer said McFadyen's experience with high-profile cases makes him a good appointment.

"He knows how to deal with the publicity and the communities that are at odds over this," she said.

The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has led a high-profile campaign to get the case dropped, alleging racial discrimination and prosecutorial misconduct on the part of Wilson County Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe.

At least one U.S. lawmaker from Wilson has asked for a federal probe into whether Johnson's civil rights were violated.

And Willis' supporters have said justice has not been served; Willis' family, which rarely speaks publicly about the case, has said it has lost confidence in the justice system.

"Everybody that's involved in this case is entitled to a fair hearing – to have an opportunity to essentially make their case and present their facts and their evidence," McFadyen said. "The victim's family – they're the folks who have suffered the most in this case, but everybody's entitled to be heard in this case that has an interest in it, and that's exactly what we'll do."

State NAACP President Rev. William Barber said Tuesday he is encouraged by McFadyen's appointment and hopes "this will finally bring the resolution that allows James to get on with his life."

"We still maintain that James is completely innocent of all charges, and the entire case should be dropped and that the state should focus on prosecuting the original prosecutor in the case," he said.

Johnson, who was planning to attend college when he was arrested in 2004, has maintained his innocence on all charges, and Kenneth Meeks, who was convicted in April 2006 of murdering Willis, has said he acted alone.

Johnson turned Meeks in 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.

Belinda Foster, a Forsyth County assistant district attorney, re-examined the case late last year and dismissed the original charges against Johnson in December. Because of her schedule and caseload, however, she was unable to carry the case to trial.

Calls to Johnson, his attorneys and the Willis family on Tuesday weren't immediately returned.

But the Willis family has expressed its disappointment about the how the case has been handled, criticizing the NAACP, local politicians and the news media for its coverage.

"(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 a Dec. 29 letter to The Wilson Daily Times.