A grand jury in North Carolina has indicted a man who admitted to an innocence panel that he broke into a woman’s house 36 years ago and killed her, adding that the man sent to prison for the crime was nowhere to be seen that night.
Darren Leak Johnson, 55, confessed to investigators with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that he alone killed Blanche Ragins Bryson, according to commission records reported by the Winston-Salem Journal. Johnson was indicted for first-degree murder in Bryson’s death.
The man, Darren Leak Johnson, confessed to investigators with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission that he alone killed Blanche Ragins Bryson, according to commission records.
Johnson told investigators and Winston-Salem police that Merritt Drayton Williams, who is currently serving a life sentence for Bryson’s death, was not on the scene Dec. 10, 1985. Johnson’s DNA was found on Bryson’s nail clippings.
The Innocence Commission unanimously ruled in June 2019 that there was sufficient evidence that Williams did not kill Bryson. A panel of three superior court judges has to now schedule a hearing to determine whether Williams should be exonerated. According to court papers, the hearing had been scheduled for the week of Nov. 29, but Williams’ attorney, Julie Boyer, has asked that the hearing be rescheduled for February 2022, saying her ability to prepare has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams, 63, is currently serving two life sentences, plus 10 years in three separate homicides.
Williams, 63, is currently serving two life sentences, plus 10 years in three separate homicides — Bryson’s death, the 1983 death of Arthur Wilson, and the 1986 death of Mary Smith. Wilson was allegedly beaten to death after leaving an illegal drink house, but medical examiners told commission investigators that Wilson, who was drunk, may have fallen and hit his head. Smith died several days after Williams pushed her down a flight of stairs.
Johnson, 55, was indicted for first-degree murder in Bryson’s death. Bryson, a 65-year-old retiree who lived alone in a house on Gilmer Avenue, was found by her son, Jeffrey Bryson, strangled to death with a lamp chord wrapped around her neck. Her house had been ransacked and her car was found about a mile from her house.
The indictment moves Johnson’s case to Forsyth Superior Court, where either a date for a trial will be set or prosecutors and Johnson’s attorneys can negotiate a plea deal. It will be at least a year, if not more due to the pandemic before the case is resolved.
Even though Johnson made statements to investigators with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission that he acted alone in killing Bryson and that Williams was not there, Forsyth County prosecutors have contended they believe Williams made consistent statements about his involvement. They also said Johnson has admitted he was on LSD at the time. Prosecutors argue that Johnson and Williams could have broken into Bryson’s house and that Johnson just does not remember because of his drug use.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill has criticized the commission’s work and called it a waste of taxpayer dollars.
Michael McCoy, a former assistant chief with the Winston-Salem Police Department, told investigators with the commission in a sworn deposition that he told his detectives not to trust a word that Williams said. McCoy said he told his homicide detectives that Williams was a compulsive liar and that they should corroborate anything that Williams said.