Recently investigators in Henry County, VA, announced an increase of a reward to $100,000 for information leading to the resolution of a heinous crime that was committed there eight years ago… the murder of the Short family. Parents Michael and Mary Short were found fatally shot in the head in their home, while their nine year-old daughter Jennifer’s remains were found six weeks later in Rockingham, NC; cause of her death was also due to a single gunshot to the head.
Before approaching police with information about a crime, whether or not a reward is offered, one should consider the case of James Arthur Johnson, of Wilson, NC. Around June 2004, Wilson teenager Brittany Willis was senselessly and brutally kidnapped, raped, and killed by 16 year-old Kenneth Meeks. He confided with his new friend of several months, James Arthur Johnson, about his dastardly deeds, and even drove Johnson to the crime scene to see the body. After the discovery of the victim’s body, the family and friends of Brittany Willis offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest of the culprit responsible. Johnson finally went to his father with his knowledge of the crime, whereupon his father immediately took James to the police station, without an attorney in tow and without first contacting an attorney. James Arthur Johnson gave police the identity of the killer, thus solving the crimes against Brittany Willis.
Kenneth Meeks, who later confessed to the crimes, is an African American, as is James Arthur Johnson. The police investigator, during an interrogation of Meeks, told him that his friend (James Arthur Johnson) had “snitched” on him. This resulted in a predictably enraged response by the young Meeks of implicating Johnson as payback. James Arthur Johnson was then arrested on charges of murder, rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery, although there was no credible evidence to connect him to any crime… only the word of the confessed killer. After a couple of years, Meeks, who was serving a life sentence, recanted his accusations against Johnson, stating that he made the initial false statements in anger. Despite that, Johnson remained in jail for more than three years awaiting trial. Prosecutor Bill Wolfe, who manufactured two eyewitnesses linking Johnson to victim Willis (both with connections to the Wilson Police Department), jettisoned them when the NAACP’s Rev. William Barber got involved. Wolfe knew that his false witnesses would not be able to stand up to the intense media scrutiny which the trial would undoubtedly bring. To the very end, Wolfe tried his best to get Johnson to accept a plea deal in exchange for time served, but none was forthcoming as the time for the trial arrived. Prosecutors Bill Wolfe and Wilson District Attorney Howard Boney Jr., who had no case against Johnson, folded like accordions, and on day trial was set to begin, announced that they would turn the case over to a special prosecutor.
After spending 39 months in jail, Johnson was able to bond out, to await the decision of the special prosecutor. The events which transpired subsequently were all foreordained, with Special Prosecutor Belinda Foster dropping the murder, rape, kidnapping, and robbery charges, but instituting an “accessory after the fact” charge instead. This was based solely on statements that Johnson made when he was first interviewed by police when he told them that he wiped fingerprints off of the victim’s vehicle at Meeks’s command… actions which had no bearing on the case against the killer.
Special Prosecutor W. David McFadyen, after pretending to conduct a thorough investigation, announced that he would proceed to prosecute James Arthur Johnson. As his predecessors before him, McFadyen tried to obtain a plea deal, and James, who had tasted freedom and abhorred the prospect, regardless of how remote, of returning to jail, finally gave in. He pleaded guilty to “misprision of felony,” in exchange for time served.
Misprision of felony is most often described as a common law in which the misdemeanor of observing a felony and failing to prevent it, or of knowing about a felony and failing to disclose the fact of its occurrence. A case that is cited in the legal annals is one occurring in South Carolina in which a witness to a crime refused to testify out of fear of retribution from the criminals. The judge found him guilty of “misprision of felony” and he was sentenced to three years.
As opposed to the aforementioned case, Johnson did disclose his knowledge of the crime to police, but prosecutors argued that he waited three whole days to do it! (Without Johnson’s assistance, I doubt that the Willis case would be solved today.) Not only that, but Johnson served three months more than the man sentenced in South Carolina. Yet Prosecutor McFadyen went forward with his prosecution of Johnson.
James Arthur Johnson was a hero who had the courage to go against the “no-snitch”laws of the street and tell authorities everything he knew about the Willis case. Yet, he was vilified by the police, prosecution, and Wilson media, which effectively resulted in the town being divided along racial lines. Not only that, but he did not receive the $20,000 reward which he had earned. There is no explanation as to why it was not awarded.
Because North Carolina has a system of “selective justice based on Class and Color” anyone with knowledge about a crime needs to seriously consider whether or not to approach authorities with it. With the James Arthur Johnson case as a precedent, police and prosecutors may decide to charge one with “misprision of felony” for not coming forward in a timely manner. As is commonly the case, charges are likely to be arbitrary depending on one’s financial status, class, and skin color.
Unlike the murder of Jacquetta Thomas, the African American destitute prostitute whose body was discovered on a deserted cul-de-sac in 1991, in which Prosecutor Tom Ford didn’t care about the victim and was more interested in closing the case than solving the crime, the same cannot be said in the Short murders… the authorities are committed to finding the true perpetrators of those crimes. In this instance, the disenfranchised, poor, and people of color are more likely able to provide information about a crime without fear of being tied to it.
The media’s publication of the sources of the reward gives it some credibility, but then again, the family and friends of Brittany Willis offered a reward, which they then refused to honor. So it is important to keep in mind that in the state of North Carolina, whether or not one receives a reward after solving said requirements is basically a crapshoot.
James Arthur Johnson did the right thing by going to police with his knowledge of the crimes against Willis. It is the police, prosecutors, and media who did the wrong thing by unjustly depriving the young man of 39 months of the best years of his life and putting in its place confinement in hell. The city of Wilson should have been grateful to Johnson for solving a senseless and despicable crime and putting a dangerous young man off the streets. However, the media has taught the good people of Wilson to despise him.
The treatment of James Arthur Johnson by Wilson police, prosecutors, and media does not bode well for a system of justice in North Carolina which relies on citizens coming forward to assist in solving crimes using reward money as an incentive. Instead of being celebrated for doing the right thing, one might be crucified.