Sunday, July 1, 2007

Nifonged in Wilson: James Johnson's Not So Speedy Trial

On the eve of the third anniversary of the arrest of James Johnson, the News & Observer turns its attention to the apparent nifonging of the twenty-one year old Wilson, North Carolina man who has been jailed since July 2, 2004 on charges that he abducted, robbed, raped, and murdered Brittany Tyler Willis. Held on an impossible $1,000,000.00 bond at the Wilson County Detention Center, Mr. Johnson awaits a trial scheduled for July 23, three years after helping police identify the actual perpetrator of the crime, and despite an absence of physical evidence connecting him to the crime; polygraph testing and DNA evidence that appear to confirm his actual innocence; and an admission from Kenneth Meeks, the convicted author of the crime who confessed to acting alone.
Initially suspected because he “knew too much” about the crime, Johnson was implicated by the convicted killer after police informed him that it was Johnson who turned him in. In addition to the recanted statement from Meeks, who admitted that he falsely implicated Johnson as retribution for his arrest, the only other evidence against Johnson, until recently, had been the disallowed statements of a deceased woman who claimed to have witnessed two men kidnapping the victim two hours before the crime occurred and at a time when Johnson was proven to have been elsewhere. In the spirit of Mike Nifong and Linwood Wilson, prosecutors have recently produced two new eyewitnesses, one of whom is a retired Wilson police officer, as the trial approaches.

Three years ago, the rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl abducted from a shopping center frightened the city of Wilson and grabbed headlines beyond it.

One man has pleaded guilty to the murder and is serving a life sentence.

But the informant who helped police solve the crime also ended up facing rape and murder charges and has waited three years in jail for a chance to clear his name.

Now, James Arthur Johnson's claims of innocence, his trial July 23 and the prosecution's case against him are in the spotlight.

Johnson's case has been divisive for the city of 47,000, an hour east of Raleigh.

Wilson's mayor won't talk about the crime. Other city leaders defend the police department's investigation.

Johnson's attorneys say there is no physical evidence to connect him to the rape or murder. And the man who first implicated Johnson and is serving a life sentence for the murder now says he acted alone.

Kenneth Meeks, 19, whom DNA connected to the crimes, said he lied about Johnson's role because he was angry that Johnson went to the police.

Johnson said he was home with his father at the time of the murder, which his father
confirms. "This shouldn't even go to trial," said Arthur Johnson, the father. "There's nothing to try."

Neither District Attorney Howard S. Boney Jr. nor the assistant prosecutor handling the case returned messages seeking comment.

Wilson Police Chief Harry Tyson defends Johnson's arrest. "The evidence that we got supported probable cause," he said. "A jury needs to decide his guilt or innocence."

Terry Alford, Meeks' attorney, questions prosecutors' tactics.

"This is an unusual situation," he said. "We have a person who pleaded guilty and maintained he did it alone, and the state is proceeding against someone else."

Prosecutors, who won't talk publicly, have tried to bolster their case against Johnson with statements taken recently from two eyewitnesses, including a retired Wilson police officer.

Johnson was arrested July 2, 2004. He initially faced the death penalty but now faces only life in prison. His three-year wait for trial is more than twice the average. Prosecutors in North Carolina typically dispose of murder cases in 14 1/2 months.

"There's not a single bit of evidence that he's guilty," said Richard A. Rosen, a law professor at the University of North Carolina who has handled innocence cases. "I want to know why the prosecutors are still pursuing it."

Part of the initial evidence that created probable cause for Johnson's arrest was Meeks' statement to police that Johnson killed Willis. Meeks' account appeared to be
corroborated by a now deceased 75-year-old woman who told police that she saw two black men and a young woman walking in the field where Willis' body was found on the day of the murder. However, the women said she saw those people between 2 and 3 p.m., which conflicts with evidence that proves Willis was shopping at that time.

From the start, Alford, Meeks' attorney, suspected that his client lied about Johnson's having a role in the murder.

"When I started investigating, things just didn't add up that way," he said. "There was more evidence that he did it alone."

Eventually, Alford said, Meeks admitted lying about Johnson. Last year, Meeks testified on Johnson's behalf at a pretrial hearing.

One of Johnson's attorneys, Johnny Gaskins of Raleigh, questioned Meeks about his statement implicating Johnson.

"You later told police officers that James Johnson and you had been together and that he killed Brittany Willis. Do you recall that?" Gaskins asked.

"Yes, sir," Meeks said.

"Was that true?"

"No, sir."

"Why did you tell them that?"

"Because I knew he was the one that tell the police what happened."

"You were mad at him?"

"Yes, sir."

In addition to testifying on behalf of James Johnson at last year's hearing, Meeks also sent a letter to Tim Rogers of the Wilson Daily Times confessing to acting alone and crediting Johnson's turning him in for changing the destructive path he followed.
Dear Sir:
This is Kenneth Meeks. I plead guilty to 1st degree murder in '06. I committed the crime alone. James Johnson is innocent. For them to keep holding him is a crime in itself. I gave my life (a life sentence) admitting my guilt. I was wrong. It took James turning to realize my road was going one way - towards destruction. I also gave them the murder weapon what else do they need? I've apologized time and time again. Why are they making James suffer?
Kenneth M. Meeks Jr.
Not surprisingly, the local NAACP, who had echoed Wilson Police Chief Harry Tyson's "A jury needs to decide his guilt or innocence" in championing the railroading of the Duke Innocents, have come to the defense of James Johnson.
Meanwhile, state NAACP leaders portray Johnson as another innocent black man being railroaded by the system.
Outrage over Johnson's case has revived membership in the Wilson County chapter of the NAACP. At a recent rally for Johnson, the speakers included Darryl Hunt of Winston-Salem, who spent 19 years in prison for a rape and murder he didn't commit, and the Rev. William Barber II, president of the state NAACP.
"We're here because there's something wrong when a man like James Johnson spends three years in jail without trial," Barber told the crowd of more than 100 people. "... We're here today because it's wrong for the system to keep people locked down and locked up when the truth is already out." N&O
"Meeks said he falsely accused James [Johnson] of being involved in the crimes because he was angry James had reported Meeks to the police," explained Al McSurely, a lawyer for the NAACP. News 14
In addition to the NAACP, Johnson has found support from his family, local leaders, and Darryl Hunt whose wrongful conviction landed him on death row.
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.
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?”
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. WRAL
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."
"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." Wilson Daily Times
Initially, Johnson had been held without bond as the State pursued the death penalty against him. Near the end of last year, prosecutors abandoned the effort to execute the young man.

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. WDT

Although Johnson has received support from many in the community, prosecutors and police are not alone in pushing the case to trial. A recent letter to the editor and an editorial in the Wilson Daily Times reveal that others advocate the continued prosecution despite the evidence of Johnson's innocence.
I would like to see someone stand up for Brittany Willis. The victim, the 17 years old was brutally raped and murdered in Wilson June 2004. One of the accused, Mr. Meeks, was sentenced to life in prison. He now says that he acted alone, that the accused's friend, James Johnson is innocent. What could he possibly lose by saying that? We now have the NAACP in town playing the race card before Johnson stands trial.

Please let us not forget that Brittany Willis was the victim, not James Johnson.

Bill Sutton
Elm City
Next month will mark the third anniversary of the murder of Brittany Willis, and the case is still not settled. It's time to bring this matter to closure by either bringing the last remaining suspects to trial or settling the charges against them...If Johnson is innocent, he should be freed. If he is guilty, he should be sent to state prison for life...The Willis family and the Wilson community need closure. Three years is long enough. WDT
Certainly, Brittany Willis is the victim of this horrible crime, as Mr. Sutton indicates, and her family, as well as the community, deserves closure, as the Wilson Daily Times suggests. It is difficult, however, to accept that three years imprisonment for a crime that evidence suggests he did not commit doesn't make Johnson a victim. Likewise, it's troubling to accept that closure should ever entail the prolonged nifonging of an innocent man.


Mandelbrot's Chaos said...

The late Ms. Willis is truly a victim of a horrible crime, and is the victim of a crime for which one person is already serving prison time. However, I agree that Mr. Johnson is truly a victim as well. I think "nifonging" sums it up adequately.

Anonymous said...

Corruption? Who would have guessed?

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Anonymous said...

Jah, i remember the day she got kilt. The people told me she drove her mommas lexus in the hood, and smoked weed wit dem. apparently, thats enough to kill someone over...(she probably refused sex wit dem)e cant pretend to understand that kind of extremist edicate! I love these black and white crimes, feeling right or wrong, if enough of you devils get killed, i will be treated like a human, and not overlooked whilst you catter to these beast! I thank god almighty for dead white devils! By the way, when i hang out at her grave, the kids across the street talk trash to me. I like graveyards, I have no special interest in BTW. dont get chocked up over me, i praise god when the blacks kill you devils...everytime i try to rise white devils call the law on me. Stop that! Help me, stop helping those niggers! 1+1=2