Public opinion won't factor in special prosecutor's decision
In an exclusive interview, David McFadyen talks with WRAL's Kelcey Carlson about his decision to handle the emotionally charged murder case of Brittany Willis and defendant James Johnson.Posted — Updated
RALEIGH, N.C. — It's an emotionally charged, high-profile murder case that's divided the Wilson community for months with claims of racial discrimination, prosecutorial misconduct and injustice.
But retired District Attorney W. David McFadyen Jr. – appointed to re-examine the June 2004 shooting death of 17-year-old Brittany Willis – says he won't allow public interest and opinion to factor into his decision whether to try one of the three suspects charged.
"I think, in this case, based on its history and based on the point that it's at now, I think it's very important that the public know that the person who is going to make a decision in this case is going to make it without outside pressure," he said.
Willis was carjacked, taken to a field near Brentwood Shopping Center, robbed, raped and shot to death.
One man pleaded guilty last April to the crime and is serving life in prison without parole.
Another man, James Johnson, 22, was detained for more than three years on charges of murder, rape and kidnapping before he was released on bond in September. In December, those charges were reduced to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. (Julian Tyson Deans, a third suspect whose case hasn’t gone to trial, is also charged with accessory after the fact.)
Johnson has long insisted he is innocent. And his supporters, which include the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, want the case dropped altogether, saying he should be hailed as a hero for turning in Willis' killer, Kenneth Meeks, to police.
Willis' family has said political motives and race have become the case’s focus, rather than bringing the person or people responsible for their child’s death to justice. They have said they’ve lost faith in the justice system.
"You can't help, as a human being, but have sympathy for all the parties involved in this case," McFadyen said. "But you have to make your decision in this case based on the facts and evidence."
McFadyen, the district attorney in Craven, Carteret and Pamlico counties for 24 years, is still reviewing the 4,000-page case file, hearing from all parties involved and interviewing investigators.
He says it's been a time-consuming process and that he has no time frame in mind to decide whether Johnson will go to trial.
"(I hope) at least, those – when this case is over – who have an interest in it, will believe they were fairly heard, regardless of the final disposition," he said.
Several weeks ago, McFadyen traveled from New Bern to the site in Wilson – now cleared for housing development – where investigators found Willis' body.
"I wanted to go back in this case and start my investigation, just as if this crime had just occurred," McFadyen said, ”just as I did for 26 years, and follow the evidence in this case to see where it leads."
According to police and court records, no physical evidence connects Johnson to the rape or homicide. Johnson has admitted to wiping his fingerprints off Willis’ sport utility vehicle but has said he was under duress at the time because Meeks showed him a gun. He went to police about the crime three days later.
Meeks initially implicated Johnson. But it was a handwritten letter to The Wilson Daily Times last April in which Meeks proclaimed Johnson’s innocence that touched off the public debate as to Johnson’s guilt or innocence.
"This case is just like every other serious case," McFadyen said. "You just have to follow the evidence. You follow the facts. You apply the law, then you make a decision that you believe is the right, just decision based on the evidence and facts of the law."
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