Johnson pleads no contest, no jail

February 18, 2009 2:00:14 PM PST
A man accused in one of Wilson County's highest profile murder cases pleaded no contest to a misprision of a felony charge Monday.The move came after a jury had been seated and lawyers were preparing their opening statements.

James Johnson, 22, ended the trial by pleading no contest to misprision of a felony. A no contest plea means a person admits no guilt, but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to likely win a conviction. Misprison of a felony means that he didn't report a felony to authorities.

Johnson was originally charged with killing 17-year-old Hunt High School graduate Brittney Willis in 2004. She was raped, murdered and dumped at a construction site in Wilson.

Another man charged in the case implicated Johnson, but after sitting in jail for three years on first degree rape and murder charges, Johnson's friend Kenneth Meeks admitted he pulled off the crime single-handedly. Meeks is now in jail for life.

Prosecutors say Johnson was an accessory because he helped Meeks clean up his car after the crime, but Johnson has maintained he did it because he was afraid for his life.

Johnson went to police three days after the killing and told them what had happened. According to court documents, Meeks was angry about that and that's why he told detectives Johnson was involved in Willis' murder.

Monday's plea hinges on the three days Johnson waited before coming forward. Prosecutors say he should have called police imediately.

The case has drawn attention because of its racial and political undertones. Johnson is black. Willis was white. Johnson's supporters, including the NAACP, have said he should not have been charged because he did the right thing by going to police.

Prosecutors say Johnson committed a crime and should be punished.

Both the Willis and Johnson families told Eyewitness News Monday that they were pleased with the outcome.

"Right now we just want to go hug our son and wish him well and get him back in school and thank our God," said Johnson's father Arthur.

"This has been a long sojourn for the Johnson family, James, and the community. Now, finally, James can move on with his life, go back to school, and live beyond what was thrust upon him. And, perhaps the community at large can heal," offered North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II.

Johnson was not sentenced Monday. The judge who accepted the plea granted a prayer for judgment continued, meaning the court did not impose a punishment. That means he will not serve jail time.


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