Is Willie Junior Johnson really guilty?
No, say two Chicoans, who are trying to get the 20-year-old double-murder case reopened
At a little past 9:30 p.m. on an April evening in 1982, two Gridley grocery-store clerks—a man and a woman—and a man who stopped to use the phone there were kidnapped and taken into an orchard, where the two men were executed.
The woman, Candace Memmler, was ordered to drive the killer, in her vehicle, back toward the store. On the way, she bailed out of the car and made it through the night, hiding among the trees.
Memmler’s husband, worried that his wife hadn’t returned home, alerted the police, and within two hours her station wagon, which had been abandoned, and the bodies of the two men—Mitchell Jenkins, a clerk at King’s Supermarket, and Murle Hubec, who had just moved to the area from Anderson—were found. Sometime the next morning, Memmler flagged down a passerby and was taken to a nearby hospital for a severely broken ankle and bruised shoulder.
This is the setting that started Butte County’s first capital murder case rolling. With Memmler’s eyewitness account, all she had to do was ID the perpetrator. Fingerprints in the vehicle were rendered useless when police allowed Memmler’s husband, Wayne, to drive it home that night. A footprint found at the scene was also useless six years later, when the case finally made it to trial.
In early 1988, an Oroville man by the name of Willie Junior Johnson stood in a Butte County courtroom facing Memmler, who was on the witness stand pointing her finger in his direction: “That was the man,” she told the jury.
Johnson, 24 at the time, eventually was sentenced to life without parole. Recent correspondence with him from his cell in Salinas Valley State Prison, however, has renewed the vigor of two Chicoans who have believed all along that Johnson was innocent.
Willie Hyman is no stranger to Butte County, particularly law enforcement and the District Attorney’s office. Since the 1970s, when he moved here, he has been fighting for civil rights, first through the NAACP and for 30 years as a key member of the Butte Community Coalition. He was in the courtroom through much of Johnson’s trial. He got to know the defendant’s mother, Ruby, now deceased, and corresponded with her.
Now, all these years later, he says that something just didn’t sit right with him about that case.
Jim Pihl feels the same way. Johnson’s was the first murder case Pihl, a private investigator, ever worked on. In that capacity, he was in court every day and grew to know Johnson and his family quite well.
Back in 1988, Hyman and Pihl watched as Johnson’s defense attorney tried time and time again to get the judge to grant a mistrial and every time got denied. They didn’t know each other at the time, but 21 years later, they’re good friends uniting to try to clear Johnson’s name. And they’re so sure about it that they’re conducting the investigation pro bono.
They both maintain that Johnson was not the killer, could not have been the killer. More likely, it was one of his brothers or friends, who, in the night hours and under much duress, may have all looked the same to Memmler, whose first description of the killer was that he was “dark-complected, possibly black.” In fact, in the first two lineups she was shown in the hospital (which she later said she didn’t remember, as she was on pain medication), she picked out a different black man and then a Hispanic man.
“Her initial observations didn’t even identify the killer as black,” Pihl said. “Then all of a sudden it turns into her pointing at Willie Junior and saying, ‘I’m sure that’s him.’ ”
According to Enteprise-Record reports of the trial, a month after the kidnapping and murders, Memmler was visited by Sgt. Bill Elliott of the Butte County Sheriff’s Department. He brought with him yet another photo lineup. After narrowing down the photos, Memmler told the court that she told Elliott she wished she could see another expression on the man’s face. Elliott handily reached into his briefcase and presented a snapshot of Johnson. The picture was never entered into evidence and never reported in the sergeant’s report. At that moment, Memmler said it was Johnson who had been in the car with her that night.
In the end, with no physical evidence, it was Memmler’s eyewitness account that convicted Johnson. Both Hyman and Pihl question whether that account was accurate—not accusing Memmler of deliberately misleading the jury, but of being led by police to feel confident in her finger-pointing.
“The DA was under a lot of pressure to solve this case,” said Hyman.
Numerous studies have found that eyewitness accounts, while critical to a judge or jury, are often faulty, since they rely on a person’s memory, which is “malleable, full of holes, easily contaminated and susceptible to suggestion,” according to a CBS News report.
Many people who were convicted years—even decades—ago based on eyewitness testimony are cleared with DNA evidence. There is none in this case, however.
Hyman, through the Butte Community Coalition, and Pihl have launched their own investigation into the past, which will include getting in contact with Memmler, who lives out of state. They are hoping to uncover enough in the coming months to prove Johnson’s innocence. As of now, he’s spent nearly half his life in prison.