NC man once accused of murder marks end of ordeal
By MARLON A. WALKER : Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press
Feb 19, 2009
GOLDSBORO, N.C. -- James Johnson's plea Monday to a felony charge in connection with the death of a 17-year-old Wilson girl marked the end of his legal ordeal surrounding the case.
Johnson entered an Alford plea to a misprision of a felony charge, meaning he does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors may have enough evidence to convict him. No judgment goes on his record.
But he and his family said the battle with the legal system that wrongly jailed him more than three years continues for anyone who may face what's taken him nearly five years to overcome.
"We can't let it end there," said Johnson's father, Arthur Johnson. "If you just say it's over because of Monday, by Tuesday you're right back where you started from."
Brittany Willis, police said, was kidnapped at gunpoint on June 28, 2004, from a shopping center parking lot. Authorities found the 17-year-old's body the next day at a construction site. She had been raped and shot twice.
Then-16-year-old Kenneth Meeks showed up to the Johnson family home the night of Willis' murder in a sport utility vehicle James Johnson said he didn't recognize. From there, the two drove to the construction site where the girl had been killed. Johnson was shown the teen's body.
But after he told authorities of what he'd been told and saw, the finger was pointed back at him. He was jailed more than three years on murder, rape and kidnapping charges in Willis' death.
Meeks eventually was sentenced to life without parole in Willis' death. He later recanted his story to authorities that James Johnson had a part in the slaying, going as far as to write the local paper with the information.
Johnson's charges were eventually dropped in September 2007, but a special prosecutor given the case charged Johnson with accessory after the fact for his role in the incident. The prosecutor claimed Johnson wiped his fingerprints off Willis' vehicle.
"I was tired of the court system," Johnson, now 22, said at a prayer vigil marking the end of his nearly 5-year ordeal. "Even if it was a 99-percent chance I'd get off, that one percent ... scared me. I've already seen (my family) through glass for three-and-a-half years."
He said he intended to fight the charges to the end, but fear of going back to the same place he says he was wrongly held for more than three years pushed him to accept the plea agreement. He had been released in September 2007 when a judge reduced his $1 million bond.
Johnson was barely an adult when he was jailed on murder charges in July 2004. Now, he says, he plans to use his story to help other teens going down the wrong road.
"Being in jail, I realized some of the traps some of the young brothers fall into," he said. "I want to give them an outlet. I want to open their eyes."
The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said Wednesday more needs to be done to prevent prosecutors from wrongly targeting innocent people.
"The James Johnson case was never a case about the Willises versus James Johnson," Barber said. "The case was about James Johnson versus an arrogant system of injustice."
NAACP officials spent Wednesday morning telling stories of others who had been convicted in North Carolina. Some, like Alan Gell, had been sentenced to die for crimes they were later found to have not committed. Gell was acquitted in 2004 of a 1995 killing after it was revealed prosecutors had withheld key evidence during his original trial.
A complaint with the State Bar is still in progress against Wilson County assistant district attorney Bill Wolfe, whom the Johnsons have accused of prosecutorial misconduct. Barber has said he's hoping the NAACP's national office will assist them in fighting what he sees as injustices in the state's legal system.
" The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP, said Wednesday more needs to be done to prevent prosecutors from wrongly targeting innocent people."
That's not the way Barber told it during the Duke riots but it's good to know that he has now experienced a truly radical change of heart and that he will,no doubt, shortly be joining with the players to haul Nifong and other criminally culpable individuals before the bar of North Carolina justice.
See "Where Are They Now" over in the Duke case file for starters on our considerable backlog of Barber materials.