When he was in law school Johnson Britt turned down opportunities to work in district attorneys’ offices because he thought prosecutors were the bad guys.
Eight years later he successfully ran for DA of Robeson County, an office he held for 24 years. He inherited 81 pending murder cases and 14 capital resentencing cases on his first day.
Throughout his career, Britt remembers four cases he personally prosecuted in which the defendant received the death penalty. He’s lost count of how many others were sentenced to death by his assistant DAs.
After retiring as DA in 2018, Britt started practicing law again, but on the other side.
“I knew I wanted to be a lawyer from the beginning,” Britt said. “I chose to become a prosecutor, and I loved what I did as a prosecutor and the interaction I had with people.”
Now a defense attorney, Britt is doing what he intended to do when he started practicing law. He said it really shouldn’t be a big surprise to people that he made the switch.
Butch Pope, an attorney in Whiteville who knows Britt personally and professionally, said the public doesn’t always understand how someone could go from being a prosecutor to being a defender, but either way, the job is to represent the law.
“Who knows more about the prosecution’s case than the defense and vice versa?” Pope said.
Britt said he is bringing the same passion to his role as he did to his role as DA.
‘There was a legacy there’
“I knew from the time I was 5 years old what I wanted to be,” Britt said. “I wanted to follow in their footsteps. There was a legacy there.”
Born and raised in Lumberton, Britt has law in his blood. Both his father and his grandfather were lawyers who had a general practice doing mostly criminal defense and civil litigation.
After getting his law degree from Campbell University, Britt joined a private practice.
“I wanted to be in the courtroom,” Britt said. “I knew that in order to do that and get the experience I thought I needed trying cases, I needed to look elsewhere.”
Running for DA
In 1989, significant changes were happening in Robeson County’s court system. Britt was offered jobs by the DA’s office and the public defender’s office.
“Looking at the situation, I knew I had always wanted to do criminal defense,” Britt said.
However, the DA’s office was where Britt could get the trial experience he wanted and needed.
He planned to accept a job in the DA’s office, stay for five years, establish his name as a trial lawyer, then leave to start his own practice.
Shortly after he started his job in the DA’s office, his oldest son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. He knew this meant he would have to stay in his job in order to keep his family’s health insurance.
He continued to work in the DA’s office, primarily doing felony prosecution in Superior Court: trying murder cases, rape cases, assaults and robberies.
Early in 1993, a rumor started that Britt was going to run against his boss for DA. Britt was fired.
He was hired to run the Superior Courts in Columbus and Bladen counties.
“It gave me an opportunity to see how another DA’s office operated, and to see that there were real differences in those districts that could be utilized here,” Britt said.
Two years later, he saw an opportunity to return to the Robeson County DA’s office: because of criticism of the office, Britt decided to run for DA there and was elected in 1995.
DA in a high crime area
When he entered office as DA, the murder of Michael Jordan’s father, James, was consuming Robeson County. Britt inherited the cases against Daniel Green and Larry Demery, 17 and 18 years old at the time, who were accused of robbing and murdering Jordan on July 23, 1993.
“I had to catch up on what the case was about and where they were in court,” Britt said. “There was a special judge appointed and it basically had its own life.”
Britt immediately implemented new changes that he hoped would result in the docket moving at a quicker pace. Plea bargaining wasn’t something often done in Robeson County at the time.
“As a result, there were people who got hit very harshly by the court system for things,” Britt said.
Donnie Douglas, the former editor of The Robesonian newspaper, said Robeson County is a high crime area.
“Johnson was district attorney in a community that typically led the state in SBI statistics both in violent and non-violent crime, which is certainly not something for us to be proud of but was something that was a reality,” Douglas said.
Later in his career, Britt would call the SBI on his own colleagues at the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department in what would be one of the state’s largest police corruption investigations, known as Operation Tarnished Badge.
The Jordan case
Based on the evidence, Britt said Green and Demery were culpable of murdering Jordan, but Britt found Green to be more culpable.
The case is the subject of a new docuseries, “Moment of Truth,” produced by WRAL, that re-examines the case and casts doubts on Green’s role in the murder, putting some of the spotlight on Britt.
Recently, Green’s motion for appropriate relief, which would result in a new trial for him, was denied. His lawyer, Christine Mumma, said she has a statement from Demery retracting his testimony and saying he lied on the stand.
“Daniel Green had the murder weapon,” Britt said. “At one point he had all of the things that were stolen from Mr. Jordan.”
Because Demery confessed to robbery and murder, his possible sentences included the death penalty and life in prison. Britt offered him a plea deal to avoid the death penalty.
“The agreement was that he had to testify against his best friend,” Britt said.
Green was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Demery also received a life sentence, but was granted parole last year and is set to be released in 2023. Green has come up for parole twice, but was denied each time.
“In all my dealings with Larry Demery, he was always very matter of fact about what happened,” Britt said.
The death penalty today
Practicing as a defense attorney now, Britt still thinks there are cases where the death penalty should apply, but that it will eventually no longer be used.
“Society has gone to being more in favor of life,” Britt said. “If you read the way the law is written, life is the preferred sentence. It’s only in a few cases should death ever be considered appropriate.”
Attorney Pope, who is against the death penalty, said there are cases Britt declared capital cases that other district attorneys would not have.
At one time, DAs did not have any discretion in capital murder cases if they had evidence of aggravating circumstances, and they had to seek the death penalty, according to Britt. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, North Carolina changed the law and gave DAs discretion not to seek the death penalty even if aggravating circumstances existed.
Britt said most death penalty cases last from four to six years by the time they get to court for a trial.
“You have somebody who’s sitting in jail for that long,” Britt said. “You have the anxiety that was created both for the defendant but also the victims. There’s just a tremendous amount of work that goes into trying cases like that.”
In Britt’s opinion, an alternative form of punishment can be equally as harsh as someone being sentenced to death.
“If the execution is carried out, then that person’s misery of being locked up in prison comes to an end,” Britt said. “But if you’re a person who’s been sentenced to life in prison without parole, that means you’re going to die there.”
Britt said decisions that are based on evidence and law, not based on political whim or societal demands may be unpopular, but they still have to be made.
Losing the balance
Before going into court for what would be his last case as DA, Britt realized he was losing his emotional balance. Throughout his career, he was always focused on keeping an emotional distance between himself and the case.
The case centered around Jeremiah Goodson Jr., a Lumberton police officer, who was killed while trying to serve an arrest warrant. His wife, Lametria, was pregnant at the time, and their daughter Jurnee was 3 years old.
Britt read a letter that 7-year-old Jurnee had written as an impact statement for the sentencing.
“During the course of the time I read it, I broke down and started crying,” Britt said. “I knew at that point that emotional distance I’d kept between me and the case had run into each other. I didn’t know if I could regain it.”
Four years earlier at age 45, Britt’s wife had implored him to retire, but he wanted to try the case. Britt’s doctors diagnosed him with serious heart problems related to the stress of his job, requiring Britt to have stents put in.
“I made the decision to retire, partly because of the length of time I’d been there, but partly because I realized that I couldn’t continue to do it the way I wanted to do it,” Britt said.
Throughout his time as DA, Britt’s focus was to move the docket to make the system better, more efficient and fairer to people. He ran unopposed in five of six elections and served until 2018.
Carlton Mansfield, a defense attorney, said when he started working in Lumberton, he butted heads with Britt and other people in the DA’s office.
“Over the course of the time that I worked with him, maybe he changed or I became more aware that he was capable of seeing things from multiple perspectives,” Mansfield said. “I think that helped a lot as a prosecutor.”
Britt remembers a number of people over the years who approached him in places like the grocery store to thank him for negotiating their case to give them probation or for dismissing their case.
“I always said that was either a reflection on the good work that we were doing, or I had a job no one else wanted,” Britt quipped.
At 61, Britt is back in private practice. He sees the opportunity to enter politics and said he’s thinking about running for Congress. For now, he’s focused on practicing what he set out to do at the beginning of his career.
“I had a great career as a DA and I hope to have equally a great career in private practice,” Britt said. “When I say great, I mean by helping people.”