Local News

Wake jury to hear high-profile case in Wilson

Posted November 17, 2008 9:46 a.m. EST
Updated November 17, 2008 5:04 p.m. EST

— A man accused of trying to cover up the shooting death of a Wilson teen four years ago was unsuccessful Monday in his effort to move his trial from the area because of the emotions and publicity generated on both sides of the case.

James Johnson, 22, is charged with accessory after the fact to first-degree murder in the June 2004 slaying of Brittany Willis. The 17-year-old was carjacked, taken to a field near Brentwood Shopping Center, robbed, raped and shot to death.

Defense attorney Irving Joyner filed motions Monday to dismiss the case and, in the alternative, to move the trial outside of Wilson County. He also filed a motion to pre-approve questions presented to potential jurors.

Special prosecutor W. David McFadyen agreed to the request for a change of venue, but Superior Court Judge Milton Fitch Jr. said he wanted to keep the trial in Wilson County. To ensure that pretrial publicity wouldn't affect the trial, the judge ordered that a jury be picked in Wake County and brought to Wilson.

No timetable was set Monday for trying the case, but Joyner said he expected the trial would begin early next year.

"We want to make sure this is not an environment that is intimidating or harrassing to any of the parties in the case or any of the jurors who might be brought up here (to Wilson) to hear the case," Joyner said.

Kenneth Meeks pleaded guilty last year to Willis' slaying and is serving a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. A third man, Julian Tyson Deans, is awaiting trial in the case on an accessory charge.

Meeks initially implicated Johnson in Willis' death, but he recanted that stance last year in a letter to The Wilson Daily Times. The letter touched off a public debate as to Johnson’s guilt or innocence.

Johnson was held in jail for more than three years on charges of murder, rape and kidnapping. Another special prosecutor assigned to review the case dismissed the charges last December and filed the accessory charge.

"It's been hard on the family, to say the least, but we're making it through," Johnson's mother, Beverly Johnson, said after leaving the courtroom Monday. "It doesn't feel like it, but I know everything ends at some point or another."

James Johnson has long maintained he wasn't involved in killing Willis. According to police and court records, no physical evidence connects him to the rape or homicide.

He admitted to wiping his fingerprints off Willis’ sport utility vehicle but said he did it under duress because Meeks showed him a gun. He went to police about the crime three days later.

Johnson's 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 credited with turning in 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.

"It's a shame that it's been four years and for neither family having closure has been an injustice in and of itself," said Emma Wilson, a friend of the Willis family. "I guess the wheels of justice are grinding ever so slowly, and that's unfortunate."