Local News

NAACP: Injustice still being fought

Posted February 18, 2009 3:44 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— The president of the state chapter of the NAACP says that although a man jailed for three years on a murder charge won't spend more time behind bars, an injustice is still being fought.

At a news conference Wednesday, Rev. Dr. William Barber said more needs to be done to prevent prosecutors from wrongly targeting people not guilty of crimes.

Barber's organization filed a complaint with the North Carolina State Bar three years ago against the former prosecutor who handled the case of James Johnson.

Wilson County authorities detained Johnson, 22, for 39 months on charges of rape, murder, robbery and kidnapping in the June 2004 death of 17-year-old Brittany Tyler Willis.

The criminal case against Johnson ended Monday when he entered an Alford plea to a charge of attempted misprision of a felony, which means failing to notify authorities of a crime.

Johnson admitted to waiting three days to go to tell police about Willis' death and to turn in another man, Kenneth Meeks, who pleaded guilty to the crime. Johnson always maintained he was never involved in Willis's death.

Johnson's supporters, including the NAACP, say he was the constant victim of a broken justice system and that he should be considered a hero for turning in Meeks.

"Even when the system knew it had no case, James Johnson was offered plea deal after plea deal, trying to get him to plea so that it would cover up the system's mistakes," Barber said Wednesday.

Wilson County District Attorney Howard Boney and Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe, who initially handled the case, did not return phone calls Wednesday and have generally refused to comment about the case.

Also Wednesday, Johnson's defense attorney, Irving Joyner, noted that under the deal reached Monday, Johnson did not plead guilty but acknowledges the state had evidence that could have convicted him.

David McFadyen, the special prosecutor appointed to the case last January, however, said that according to the legal definition of an Alford plea, Johnson did plead guilty.

"The judgment will indicate the defendant entered a guilty plea. The facts speak for themselves. He has been convicted," McFadyen said.

The Alford plea stems from a 1963 North Carolina murder case that was finally stetled by a U.S. Supreme Court decision about the defendant's pleading guilty at the same time that he claimed he was innocent of the crime.

Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch issued a prayer for judgment in the case, meaning no sentence will appear on Johnson's record and that the case will be listed as pending indefinitely.

The Willis family said Monday they are satisfied with the deal reached Monday and that Johnson's plea allows them to now move forward.