Sunday, May 27, 2007

Nifonged in Wilson: James Johnson

From WRAL May 26, 2007:
People in Wilson [NC] are calling for justice in the case of a man accused of murdering a young girl – and they support the suspect.

James Johnson has been in jail for nearly three years. He is charged with the kidnapping, rape and murder of 17-year-old Brittany Willis. His family claims evidence proves he's innocent.

They organized a rally downtown, led by Johnson’s father, Arthur Johnson. James has waited nearly three years for his day in court.

“We want justice not just for James, but for everyone,” Arthur said. “But how can you have it when people that are supposed to impose it are not abiding by it?”

Arthur says DNA clears his son of the crime. Last year, Kenneth Meeks confessed to killing Brittany Willis and says he acted alone. But that's not enough to get James out of jail.

This Friday marks 35 months since James Johnson was brought to the Wilson County Jail. His parents want the charges dropped. They know it can be done, and they point to a high-profile example: the Duke Lacrosse case.


The rally got a little help from a man who has become a symbol for the wrongly accused: Darryl Hunt of Winston-Salem. He won his freedom after spending 18 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit.

“We’re tired of our young men and women getting locked up and their lives taken away from them,” Hunt said.

From the Wilson Daily Times May 24, 2007:
Arthur and Beverly Johnson, parents of James Johnson, 20, are holding the rally "not just for James, but for everyone" wrongly accused of a crime, Arthur Johnson said.

The featured speaker will be Darryl Hunt, a Winston-Salem native who was wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering Deborah Sykes in 1984.

Hunt maintained his innocence and was released after 19 years in prison, after DNA evidence exonerated him. He then started the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice.

After his exoneration, the city of Winston-Salem settled Hunt's claims against the city by awarding him $1,650,000 for his wrongful conviction.

Hunt's story was also featured in the movie "The Trials of Darryl Hunt," which was broadcast on HBO.

Jimmy Harris of Rocky Mount, is also expected to attend, Arthur Johnson said. Harris was convicted in 1984 of first-degree murder and robbery in Rocky Mount, according to the Rev. Elton Powell, a local teacher who has taken interest in Harris' case and James Johnson's case.

Harris served 22 years in prison and was released on probation in October 2006. Powell said he and other people supporting Harris are working to prove he was wrongfully convicted.

Wilson County Commissioner Bobbie Jones will introduce Arthur Johnson at the rally. Then, Johnson said he would read a letter sent by Congressman G.K. Butterfield on May 16 to District Attorney Howard Boney, Judge Frank Brown and Judge Milton "Toby" Fitch.

The letter calls for James Johnson to be given a trial, a release on "reasonable conditions" or a dismissal of charges, noting "he is being denied a speedy trial as guaranteed by the Constitution and being punished while he is entitled to the presumption of innocence."

On May 7, Brown set James Johnson's trial date for July 23.

Arthur Johnson said he hopes to see about 200 people at the rally Saturday. The event, he said, is not just to tout James Johnson's innocence but to help prevent future wrongful convictions.

"My concentration is not just for James but for the community as a whole," Arthur Johnson said Wednesday. "This will happen to someone else's husband, brother, mother, daughter; and it doesn't need to."

James Johnson's parents hope the rally could help get their son's case tossed out.

"We want them to throw this case out. Period," Arthur Johnson said.

James Johnson is being held at Wilson County Detention Center on $1 million bond.

Kenneth Meeks, 19, is serving a life sentence for Willis' murder. He pleaded guilty in April 2006 to first-degree murder and six other charges against him were dropped as part of the deal.

Meeks recanted statements he had initially made about Johnson's involvement in the crime, claiming he committed it alone, according to court documents. He sent a letter to The Wilson Daily Times in April, again claiming sole responsibility for Willis' death.
From WRAL May 7, 2007:
A man charged with the June 2004 death of a Wilson teen will soon get his day in court after he has been in jail for nearly three years for the crime. However, a second suspect in the case recently wrote a letter, claiming sole responsibility for the teen's death.

James Johnson will be on trial July 23 for the slaying of 18-year-old Brittany Willis. Authorities said Johnson and Kenneth Meeks kidnapped Willis from a parking lot, then robbed, raped and shot her in a field on Westshire Drive near the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson.

Johnson has always proclaimed his innocence in the case, and now his parents are pleased that their son will get his day in court.

"As you will see, the evidence proves him innocent," said Arthur Johnson, James' father.

Meeks wrote a letter dated April 24 and sent it to the Wilson Daily Times, claiming that he "committed the crime alone and James Johnson is innocent." Meeks also said in the letter that he gave authorities the murder weapon.

Meeks pleaded guilty to killing Willis in April 2006 in a deal in which he would spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole. Since Meeks was 16 when the crime occurred, he could not get the death penalty.

In the letter, Meeks said that holding Johnson was "a crime in itself."

"They have the person who committed the crime. The person who committed the crime has over and over again confessed that initially he lied on James because he was upset that James turned him in," said Arthur Johnson.

Johnson's attorney declined to comment on the letter sent to the newspaper. Johnson's family said the letter is more proof about what they have known all along.

"Justice would be to let him go now. You already know he didn't do it," said Arthur Johnson.

Click here to read the letter Kenneth Meeks sent to the Wilson Daily Times.

From the Wilson Daily Times April 17, 2007:
James Johnson, the 20-year-old Wilson man accused of raping and killing 18-year-old Brittany Willis in June 2004, is being held on $1 million bond at Wilson County Detention Center.

His family says he has been wrongly accused and is renewing efforts to rally support for him.

Johnson's parents, Arthur and Beverly Johnson, recently sent dozens of letters to "anyone willing to read it," which briefly outline the case and question whether race, politics and money have played a role in the matter.

"They're messing up this young man's life before it even began, for political, monetary and racial reasons, and that's wrong," Arthur Johnson said.

The prosecution alleges that Johnson and Kenneth Meeks, who was 16 years old at the time, abducted Willis from the Brentwood Shopping Center in June 2004, took her to a nearby construction site, raped her, shot her and left her body, then abandoned her car at a nearby apartment complex.

Meeks pleaded guilty to first-degree in April 2006 as part of a plea deal that dropped six other charges, including rape and kidnapping. Because he was a minor at the time, he was ineligible for the death penalty and was sentenced to life in prison.

Documents in Meeks' case file show in April 2006 he testified that he acted alone in the crime, and only implicated Johnson after he discovered Johnson had told police about what Meeks had done. (Emphasis supplied)

In December 2006, Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe announced he would not seek the death penalty against Johnson, making him eligible for bond. In January, his bond was set at $1 million, but Johnson's family calls the bond an empty gesture.

"If we had $1 million, we would have had our son home by now," said his father.

Johnson's parents say polygraph tests and DNA evidence exclude their son from the commission of the crime. They are confident he will be exonerated, they said, but they question whether impartiality will be found in Wilson's courts.

"They're looking for someone to convict," Arthur Johnson said. "We feel if we could get someone to look at it with an objective opinion, (the case) would be tossed out."

At times there have been delays in the case. A motion regarding "hearsay statements" took four months to get a ruling.

In August 2006, Judge Frank Brown heard arguments regarding whether certain statements should be admissible during Johnson's trial.

The statements are from the husband and daughter of the late Charlene Gray Godvey, who claimed in 2004 to have seen two men walking with a woman in the area around the time authorities believe Willis was abducted.

Godvey's statements were testimonial and therefore inadmissible, Brown ruled, but the statements she made to her husband and daughter were "nontestimonial" and admissible.

Now, Johnson is awaiting a trial date. Wolfe said the chief Superior Court judge sets the calendar, and Johnson's court date hasn't been decided.

As his family waits, they are discussing holding a "march for justice" and continue to look for support.

"Right now, the way we feel is Wilson, since its inception, has always been this way and it's time to turn Wilson on its ear," Arthur Johnson said. "What's to say down the road someone's child doesn't go through this same thing? At some point, it has to stop."
From WRAL July 2, 2004:
Wilson police have arrested three teenagers in connection with the death of a 17-year-old girl found dead in a field Tuesday afternoon.

James Johnson, 18, and Kenneth Meeks, 16, are each charged with first-degree kidnapping, murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon and rape in the death of Brittany Willis.

Julian Deans, 19, is charged with accessory after the fact.

Police say the arrests came after Johnson and Deans went to Wilson police Thursday night offering information about the case and mentioned a reward.

Investigators charge that Johnson and Meeks abducted Willis from the Brentwood Shopping Center parking lot Monday afternoon and took her to a nearby construction field, where she was raped and shot.


Some classmates were stunned to hear the news of their classmates' arrest.

"It was a shock because the boys that have been accused are not those type of boys," said Anna Edwards, who recently graduated from Fike High School with Dean and Johnson.

Edwards said Dean and Johnson, a standout soccer player, had many friends and stayed out of trouble.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

GOOD NEWS!!! Today it was announced that the trial would not proceed until the NC Attorney Genera's office reviewed the evidence in the case and determined whether or not there is sufficient evidence to move forward. This is the same Attorney General who declared the Duke Lacrosse players "innocent". The NC NAACP took the lead in demanding justice for James Johnson, his bail was reduced from $1,000,000 to $60,000 bail is being posted as I type.