James Johnson pleads guilty in Willis murder case
Posted February 16, 2009 6:00 a.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT
Wilson, N.C. — A Wilson man accused of helping to cover up the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl nearly five years ago pleaded guilty Monday to a lesser charge of failing to report the crime.
James Arthur Johnson, 22, entered an Alford plea to attempted misprision of a felony in connection with the June 2004, slaying of Brittany Tyler Willis.
The charge is punishable by a maximum of 15 months in prison, but Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch gave Johnson a prayer for judgment continued.
That means the court did not impose a punishment. Johnson, who was held for more than three years after his arrest, will not face additional jail time. If he is ever charged with another crime or convicted of a crime, he could still be sentenced in the Willis case.
"The prayer for judgment, while not a final determination, is a scarlet letter that will hang with (Johnson) forever and a day," Fitch said. "PJC is not appealable, nor is it expungeable."
In an Alford plea, a defendant pleads guilty, while maintaining his or her innocence, and admits it is in his or her best interest to take the plea deal, because there is sufficient evidence that could find him or her guilty. A misprision of a felony means failing to notify authorities of a crime.
Monday's plea brings an end to the high-profile case, which has been riddled with accusations of prosecutorial misconduct and injustice, as well as racial division in the Wilson community – Johnson is black; Willis was white.
"We are satisfied with what happened here today," Willis' father, Randy Willis, said after Monday's plea. "We are just ready to move forward and find some closure."
"It's been hard for everyone, both sides, and there are no winners in all this," Johnson's father, Arthur Johnson, said. "To a certain degree, we all lost."
Willis was kidnapped from the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson on June 28, 2004, and driven in her SUV to a field where she was raped, shot once in the back and once in the head.
Johnson and another man, Kenneth Meeks, were initially charged with murder, rape and kidnapping in the case. A third man, Julian Tyson Deans, was charged with accessory after the fact to first-degree murder but has never gone to trial.
Meeks plead guilty in April 2006. In a May 2007 letter to The Wilson Daily Times, he said Johnson was innocent.
Even though there was no physical evidence that linked him to the crime, Johnson spent 39 months in jail under a $1 million bond until he was released on reduced bond in September 2007.
A special prosecutor dismissed the charges in December 2007, but charged him with one count of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder.
"Anything I do today will not bring Brittany Willis back. Anything I do today will not give the defendant Johnson his 39 months back," Fitch said Monday.
Johnson's admitted to investigators that he wiped fingerprints off Willis' SUV, but said that he was under duress because Meeks showed him a gun.
He went to Wilson police three days later. According to court documents, Meeks has said that is why he initially blamed Johnson.
Special prosecutor David McFadyen argued Monday that although Johnson should get credit for coming forward, he still waited after seeing the crime scene. He saw his father shortly afterward and never said anything.
Johnson's attorney, Irving Joyner, argued that Johnson's life was "irrevocably changed" the day he was arrested.
Eighteen at the time, Johnson, with no criminal record, had recently graduated high school and was preparing to go to college on a soccer scholarship, Joyner said.
He knew nothing of Willis' death, Joyner said, until after Meeks picked up Johnson at his house and told him about it as they drove away.
Without Johnson going to police, investigators might not have ever solved the case, Joyner said, and he added that Johnson's actions did not, in any way, cause harm to Willis.
"I think he did do the right thing," Fitch said Monday. "I'm just sorry it took him the length of time to do it."
Other than the statement Monday, Willis' family has spoken very little about the case. They have expressed disappointment in the justice system through a December 2007 letter to the Wilson Daily Times.
Johnson's supporters, who include the state NAACP, will hold a news conference Wednesday morning and a prayer service Wednesday evening.
"This has been a long sojourn for the Johnson family, James and the community," state NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber said in a statement.
"Now, finally, James can move on with his life, go back to school and live beyond what was thrust upon him. And perhaps, the community at large can heal."