Buried in the B section of the June 3, 2009 issue of the “News & Observer” is a story reprinted from the “Wilson Daily Times” titled “Third man sentenced in slaying.” Sentenced for WHAT? Just like James Arthur Johnson, the second man involved in the Brittany Willis murder, kidnapping, rape, armed robbery case, the third man, Julian Tyson Deans, entered an Alford plea and was sentenced to 45 days in jail. That sentence, like Johnson’s, was suspended with a prayer for judgment continued (meaning that he would not have to serve the sentence). Although Julian Deans accompanied James Johnson when he went to police to give information leading to the arrest of the crime’s perpetrator, he was convicted of misdemeanor obstruction of justice because he was evidently present when the murderer hid the murder weapon, and because the murderer confessed to him. The murderer, Kenneth Meeks, who was immediately apprehended after Johnson and Deans went to police, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (at the time he committed the crime he was too young to receive the death penalty).
According to FOX TV’s special news program “NC’s Most Wanted,” there was yet another person who knew that the crimes against Ms. Willis were committed by Kenneth Meeks. Of the three young men who knew about the Willis murder at the hands of Meeks, he was the only one who did not go to the police. He elected to abide by the “no-snitch” rule of the street, and kept what he knew about the crime to himself. As a result, he was the only one who was not arrested, did not spend time in jail, and does not subsequently have a criminal record related to the crime.
The lead paragraph of the newspaper article reads, “The family and friends of murder victim Brittany Willis can close one chapter of their five-year nightmare.” The fact is that that chapter should have been closed five years ago with the arrest of the killer, Kenneth Meeks. James Arthur Johnson and Julian Tyson Deans had absolutely no involvement in the crimes against Ms. Willis, and were responsible for solving the crimes against her. Without their involvement and going to police with information, it is unlikely that the real perpetrator of the crimes would have ever been brought to justice. Wilson Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe, the Wilson police chief, and the media are responsible for whipping up a public frenzy against Johnson and Deans, and turning them from heroes into villains. The Wilson prosecutors and media are the ones responsible for extending this nightmarish chapter for the Willis family members. The Wilson prosecutors and media are responsible for teaching poor, disenfranchised, and youths of color that when it comes to crime, it is usually best to follow the “no-snitch” rule, because fulfilling one’s civic duty can come at an outrageously unjust cost.
The issue in the Willis case that no one in the media or legal fields wants to address is the $20,000.00 reward offered by the friends and family of Brittany Willis. James Johnson earned the reward money, and it should have been paid to him long ago. It has long since been determined that he had no involvement with the crimes against Brittany Willis. The ridiculous conviction of “not immediately going to the police with information about the commission of a felony” should not be a disqualifier for the reward. The family and friends of Brittany Willis may have offered the reward in good faith, but I have no doubt that the actions of the state and media played in role in their decision to renege on their offer.
And, finally, the Alford plea has once again been used to help “vindicate” Prosecutor Bill Wolfe for his decisions to charge Johnson with murder, rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, and Julian Deans with accessory after the fact. Any time a defendant enters an Alford plea, you can bet that the state has absolutely no case against him/her, and that the state is offering it only as a face-saving measure. If the prosecutors had a case against Johnson or Deans, they would have pursued it.
The handling of the Brittany Willis case, in an ideal world where justice always prevailed, there would have been a totally different outcome follow Johnson’s visit to the Wilson police. Meeks would have been arrested and convicted, but Johnson and Deans would have been treated as heroes for going against the “no-snitch” rule. They would have received the reward that was offered for solving the crime, and held out as role models for other young people. Instead, in today’s harsh reality, the youth are much more inclined to follow the “no-snitch” rule of the streets, be less cooperative with the police and investigators, and to fail to respond to reward incentives offered to help solve crimes.
The prosecutors, police, and media, with respect to the Willis case, have greatly contributed to the selective criminal justice nightmare with which North Carolinians are now forced to live.