In the Monday, October 12, 2009 issue of the News & Observer is an article titled “Police fight culture of ‘no snitching’: Witnesses in many areas are reluctant to furnish information, making law enforcement harder.” Is it any wonder that witnesses are reluctant to go to police after what happened to Wilson teen James Arthur Johnson in the Brittany Willis case?
In 2004, James Arthur Johnson was a well-liked African American teenage student and soccer standout who had no police record and had managed to steer clear of trouble. An acquaintance of a few months, Kenneth Meeks, an African American teen younger than James, confided to James that he had murdered Brittany Willis, and he then drove Johnson to the site where he had left the body. For a couple of days, James deliberated about divulging the heinous secret, while the murder case garnered prominent news coverage and the family and friends of Brittany Willis placed a $20,000.00 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of her killer. Finally, James relayed to his father what Kenneth had done, and his father took him immediately to the police station… without an attorney. After hearing from James, Wilson police arrested Kenneth Meeks, placed him in jail, and charged him with murder. During interrogations, the police told Meeks that his friend Johnson had “snitched” on him. This made Meeks angry, whereupon he then implicated Johnson as an accomplice and the triggerman in the murder. Without physical evidence linking Johnson to the crime and relying only on the word of the confessed criminal, police arrested James Arthur Johnson and charged him with murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery. In doing so, Wilson prosecutor Bill Wolfe, and Wilson authorities not only passed up a golden opportunity to put a dent in the “no snitch” policy of the streets, but they strengthened it.
According to Fox 50 TV’s “NC’s Wanted” program about the Willis murder, which was markedly biased against James Arthur Johnson, days after the crime only four individuals, all teenagers, knew of the crime… 1) Meeks, the murderer, 2) Johnson, 3) Julian Tyson Deans – a friend of Johnson’s, and 4) another young man. The two individuals who voluntarily went to the Wilson police to report what they knew about the crime were jailed and charged with a crime. The fourth individual who did not “snitch,” remained free and was not investigated by the authorities. And about the $20,000 reward offered by the family and friends of Brittany Willis… it was never awarded to James Johnson, the man who had earned it. So, where is the incentive to be a decent and responsible citizen and go to the police with information about a crime?
To make matters worse, Wilson Assistant District Attorney Bill Wolfe, Wilson District Attorney Howard S. Boney Jr., and Wilson police officials, among others, knew that James Arthur Johnson was innocent of the senseless crimes against Brittany Willis. It was their understandable anger at African American Kenneth Meeks, which fueled their irrational actions to vent their hostility against all African American males. This behavior is known as “transference” in psychological jargon, and is a theory which is held by University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill School of Law professor Rich A. Rosen, and is documented in his article “Framing an innocent man.”
Years after the crime, the confessed perpetrator Meeks, who was serving a life without parole sentence, retracted his earlier confession that implicated Johnson in the crime… the only thread that tied Johnson to the crime. Instead of dismissing charges against Johnson, as any “minister of justice” would do, Prosecutor Wolfe managed instead to suddenly come up with two eyewitnesses who linked Johnson with the victim prior to her death. Although both “eyewitnesses” had ties to the Wilson Police Department (one was a retired Wilson police officer), Prosecutor Wolfe was prepared to proceed with the trial. That plan was dropped like a hot potato when Rev. Dr. William Barber of the NAACP became involved, and brought media attention to the case. Wolfe bluffed that he was prepared to go to trial, while he desperately sought a plea deal with Johnson. When none was forthcoming, the prosecution went to plan B which entailed having a special prosecutor drop the charges of murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery (which they knew they could not win), and instead lodge “accessory after the fact” charges. Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster was forced by her superior, Forsyth District Attorney Thomas Keith, to do the dirty deed, and she relented, but only upon the condition that she not be forced to try the case. This “accessory” charge, based on testimony from Johnson that he wiped fingerprints off the victim’s car, was pursued solely to protect Prosecutor Bill Wolfe from complaints lodged against him with the State Bar by the NAACP.
None of the salaried state prosecutors wanted to have any part of this charade against Johnson, and finally a private sector attorney with a prosecutorial background was hired at extra expense to North Carolina taxpayers. Fox 50 News portrayed the new special prosecutor, W. David McFadyen, to be independent and impartial when it was obvious to a rational mind that bringing the “accessory” charge by McFadyen was foreordained. Over many months, McFadyen pretended to be conducting an investigation while he rang up fees at the expense of Tar Heelian taxpayers, and then proceeded to state his intention to bring Johnson to trial. He wanted to put on trial a young man with no prior criminal record and who had wrongfully served 39 months in jail on murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery charges that were dropped… why? Because he wiped finger prints off a car… not even taking into consideration that he also solved the despicable crimes against Willis.
In the screwed up finale of this major state sponsored fiasco, James Arthur Johnson, entered an Alford plea to a “misprision of felony” charge. This rarely used charge is applied to individuals who refuse to come forward to authorities with information they have about a crime in which they are not involved. James did come forth with his knowledge of the crime, but according to the prosecutor, he did not come to the police quickly enough. They could not forgive Johnson for allowing Meeks to enjoy those three extra days of freedom before going to police.
Now, let’s recap:
1) James Arthur Johnson is a popular teenage student considering soccer scholarship offers, and who as stayed out of trouble, and has no criminal record;
2) After three days of deliberating whether or not to break the “no snitch” law of the street, Johnson tells his father his knowledge about the Willis crime, and is taken by his father to the Wilson police station, without a lawyer;
3) Wilson investigators ensnare Johnson by goading Meeker to angrily implicate Johnson by telling him, “Your friend snitched on you.”
4) Prosecutor Bill Wolfe charges Johnson with murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery based solely on claims by suspect Meeks… there is no forensic or physical evidence linking Johnson to the crime;
5) After Meeks, the sole state witness recants his statement about Johnson’s involvement, Prosecutor Wolfe suddenly comes up with two eyewitnesses, both with connections to the Wilson Police Department;
6)Media scrutiny, brought by Rev. Dr. Barber of the NAACP, forces the prosecution to employ stall tactics while trying to obtain a plea deal, and when one is not forthcoming, they go to Plan B on the day trial is set to begin;
7) According to plan B, special prosecutor Belinda Foster drops the murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery charges (which are not winnable without the fabricated eyewitnesses), and imposes an “accessory after the fact” charge;
8) Because Foster, along with all other salaried state prosecutors, refuses to try the case, a private sector former prosecutor, W. David McFadyen, is brought in as special prosecutor, at extra taxpayer expense;
9) McFadyen pretends to conduct an independent and impartial investigation, and then proceeds to go to trial, threatening Johnson with facing additional jail time although he had already spent 39 months in jail on charges that were dropped;
10) To avoid more jail time, Johnson enters an Alford Plea on the rarely, if ever, used “misprision of felony” charge; and
11) Judge Milton Fitch imposes a totally confusing sentence which spares Johnson further incarceration.
Now, let’s compare the cases of the three uninvolved individuals with knowledge of the crime:
James Arthur Johnson – went to the police with information that solved the crime:
1) Charged with murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery;
2) Spent 39 months in jail awaiting trial on charges which were later dropped;
3) Charged with accessory after the fact in crimes against Brittany Willis;
4) Had to pay $60,000.00 bond to get out of jail after serious charges were dropped;
5) Forced to plead guilty to misprision of felony charge to avoid additional jail time;
6) Did not receive $20,000.00 reward offered by Willis family and friends; and
7) Did not receive $50,000.00/year compensation for wrongful incarceration.
Julian Tyson Deans – went to police with Johnson to support his statements:
1) Charged with accessory after the fact;
2) Spent several months in jail;
3)Had to pay $60,000.00 bail to get out of jail while awaiting trial;
4) Made an Alford plea, I believe, which ended a five year ordeal; and
5) Did not receive any reward monies.
Unidentified teenage male who followed the “no snitch” rule of the streets and did
not go to the Wilson police with his knowledge of the crime:
2)Not charged with a crime;
3) Not incarcerated;
4) No charge related to the Willis crime put on his record; and
5) Not adversely linked to the Willis crime for the rest of his life.
Considering the aforementioned, again, is it any wonder that people are not willing to come forward to police with information about crime, especially the poor, disenfranchised and people of color? Another disincentive, that is presented in the news article, is the statement by Durham Police Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr. who said that those people who knew the identity of a shooter in a crime but remain silent are as guilty as the shooter. So, in other words, if you witness a person fatally shooting another person and you do not drop whatever you are doing and immediately go directly to the police and snitch, then you could be charged with murder.
I know that if I were to witness a crime, it would not be the “no snitch” rule of the street that would prevent me from going to authorities; rather it would be the arbitrary and selective nature of the state’s system of “selective justice based on Class and Color.”
What happened to James Arthur Johnson is a cautionary tale of the potential downside associated with acting as a responsible and good-intentioned citizen in a hypocritical society that does not embrace the concept of “equal justice for all.”
The prosecutors, police, and media had the opportunity to justly praise, celebrate, and reward James Arthur Johnson and present him to the inner-city, community, and state as the true hero and role model he was. Authorities and the media had the chance to help stamp out the the flames of "no snitch" on our crime-riddled streets, but they decided instead to pour gasoline on it.