Attorney: Four men convicted as teens of murdering Chris Paul’s grandfather should be declared innocent | Crime
The four men convicted of murdering Chris Paul’s grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, in 2002 are innocent and should be exonerated, an attorney for one of the men said in a motion filed last month in Forsyth Superior Court.
Christine Mumma, an attorney and director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence in Durham, represents Rayshawn Denard Banner, one of five men convicted of murdering Jones on Nov. 15, 2002. Mumma filed a motion in Forsyth Superior Court called a plea for declaration of innocence on March 17. Mumma declined to comment beyond what she said in her motion.
Four of the five men, who were teens when they were charged with the murder, filed claims with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission. The commission held a hearing in March 2020 and a majority of commission members determined that there was sufficient evidence that the four men — Banner; his brother, Nathaniel Cauthen, Christopher Bryant and Jermal Tolliver — might be innocent. Dorrell Brayboy was killed in 2019 and never got a chance to file a claim, though commission investigators did get a chance to interview him.
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Starting the week of April 18, a panel of three superior court judges will decide if the four men should be exonerated.
The three attorneys who represent the other men support Mumma’s claim.
“The information collected by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission is voluminous, and the investigation conducted was thorough,” Julie Boyer, who represents Cauthen, said in an email. “The Commission found sufficient evidence of actual innocence. We are prepared to demonstrate the actual innocence of these young men at the next step, the three-judge panel.”
Mark Rabil, attorney for Jermal Tolliver, is also director of Wake Forest Law School’s Innocence and Justice Clinic and represented the late Darryl Hunt, who was exonerated in 2004 after spending 19 years in prison for the murder of Deborah Sykes, a copy editor at the now-closed afternoon newspaper, The Sentinel.
“Thirty-eight years ago, on behalf of Darryl Hunt, and for 20 years (1984-2004), I fought many of the same officer practices and procedures that caused the wrongful convictions of my client, Jermal Tolliver, and the other members of the Winston-Salem-5,” Rabil said. The Winston-Salem 5 is a reference to another case in which five men, known then as the Central Park Five, convicted as teenagers were exonerated in the rape of a jogger in Central Park. “History is repeating itself now with the State and City’s defense of these wrongful convictions from the past. It is not right to keep two of the young men (Banner and Cauthen) locked up for life and the other two (Tolliver and Bryant) saddled with the impediments and consequences of false murder convictions.”
Brad Bannon, Bryant’s attorney, said all five men and Jessicah Black, a key witness who later recanted, were kids who were interrogated by “more than a dozen seasoned police officers under circumstances we now see all over the science of juvenile false confessions.”
“They tried to tell the truth that day and night, but they finally gave up and told the lies they thought would just get them out of those rooms,” Bannon said.
“When Nathaniel Jones’ life was taken from him and his loved ones, Winston-Salem lost a pillar of its community,” Bannon continued. “Now we have a chance to prove what Chris Bryant, Dorrell Brayboy, Rayshawn Banner, Nathaniel Cauthen, Jermal Tolliver, and Jessicah Black knew to be true on that day and every day since: none of them had anything to do with it.”
Killing on Moravia Street
Jones, 61, died on Nov. 15, 2002, after he was attacked in the carport of his home at 905 Moravia St. Winston-Salem police found Jones lying on his stomach near his Lincoln Town Car, his hands bound behind his back with black tape. Black tape was wrapped around his mouth. An autopsy determined he died from arrhythmia brought on by the stress of the attack and blunt-force trauma.
Days after his grandfather died, Chris Paul, then a standout basketball player at West Forsyth High School, scored 61 points in a game in Jones’ honor. He now plays for the Phoenix Suns and is set to release a book, “Sixty-One: Life Lessons from Papa, On and Off the Court,” about his relationship with Jones. He and his family have not made any public statements about the commission’s decision. Chris Paul’s father, Charles Paul, made a victim-impact statement at the commission’s hearing in 2020.
“We’re standing strong, but we just wanted to let you all know that it always gets lost as Chris Paul’s grandfather, but this is my wife, this is my wife’s dad, and her sister’s, somebody that they loved very much,” Charles Paul said, according to a transcript of the hearing.
Charles and Robin Paul, one of Nathaniel Jones’ daughters, did not return a message seeking comment. Chris Paul could not be reached for comment.
In the 90-page motion, Mumma argues that Winston-Salem police and Forsyth County prosecutors built a case against the five teenagers — Banner was 14 and everyone else was 15 in 2002 — based on false confessions, weak physical evidence and a since-recanted statement from the only alleged eyewitness in the case — Jessicah Black, then a 16-year-old girl who was friends with the teenagers and drove them around the night of Jones’ killing.
There was never any DNA or fingerprint evidence that tied the five teenagers to the crime scene, and the only physical evidence were footprint impressions found on the hood of Jones’ Lincoln Town Car that may have been a match for a pair of Air Force 1s tennis shoes seized from the house where Banner and Cauthen lived.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill did not immediately return a message seeking comment, but he has been critical of the commission’s work, saying it is biased and unfair. He also argues that the convictions should be upheld and that Black’s recantation is unreliable. Prosecutors argue in court papers that the trial prosecutors, Eric Saunders and Beirne M. Harding, both of whom have since died, cannot defend themselves against Black’s “defamatory and false accusations.”
In court papers, Forsyth prosecutors question the actions of former Houston Chronicle reporter Hunter Atkins, to whom Black first recanted, pointing out that at some point, Atkins paid Black’s car payment. Atkins, who never published a piece about the case, testified to the commission that he paid Black’s car payment months after she had recanted.
Prosecutors accuse Atkins of manipulating Black into recanting. An executive editor at the Houston Chronicle confirmed that Atkins no longer works for the paper but declined to go into any further detail.
“For this Commission to find that these defendants are actually innocent, it must decide that all of the WSPD detectives in this case formed a conspiracy to forcefully feed words into the mouths of all five defendants and the witness Jessicah Black,” the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement provided to the commission before its hearing in 2020.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin said Tuesday that she and other prosecutors could not comment on a pending legal matter. She said prosecutors would respond at the hearing later this month, as is the normal protocol for the office.
Kira Boyd, a spokeswoman for the Winston-Salem Police Department, said the department will not be commenting on pending legal matters.
Mumma contends in the motion that all five teenagers and Black were coerced for hours at the Winston-Salem Police Department and threatened with the death penalty until they admitted some involvement in Jones’ death. In one instance, according to the motion, Bryant started admitting his involvement in Jones’ death within 10 minutes after a detective threatened him with the death penalty.
Mumma said that police quickly targeted the teenagers, ignoring and failing to follow up on other leads that could have led to different suspects.
“It is inconceivable that five teenage boys could commit this crime without leaving any fingerprints or DNA evidence connecting any of them to the scene,” she said.
Nov. 15, 2002
Jones owned a Chevron gas station on New Walkertown Road. Earlier on Nov. 15, 2002, he talked to a painter named Claude Walker and made plans to meet Walker at his house between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. to give Walker a down payment on a job he wanted Walker to do, according to the motion.
At 5:30 p.m. Jones and his nephew Terrence Jones left the station in Jones’ car. They stopped at a shopping center where Terrence Jones bought a carton of cigarettes for Jones and got a six-pack of Sprite and two half-gallons of Five Alive juice. He also bought some hamburger for himself.
Jones then dropped his nephew off at Salem Gardens apartment complex. It was 6:17 p.m. Mumma said it would have taken Jones about 8 minutes to drive from Salem Gardens to his home at 905 Moravia St.
Mumma said Jones stuck to a routine — he got home around 6:30 p.m. every night and he would call his daughter, Rhonda. He didn’t call his daughter that night, and no one picked up the phone when Walker called Jones’ house twice — 6:33 p.m. and 6:46 p.m.
Ava Williams, a family friend, drove by Jones’ house between 6:15 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., according to Mumma’s motion. She saw a small-framed man sitting in Jones’ car but thought it was one of Jones’ grandsons.
At 7 p.m., the first of four phone calls were made to Willard Cab Company. The person making the call asked for a cab to come to Jones’ house. The caller’s voice was agitated. Mumma said Winston-Salem police made little effort to determine who had made the call.
Walker got to Jones’ house at 7:45 p.m. He went to the front door but no one answered. He went to the carport, knocked on the door and as he came down the steps, he found Jones’ body on the ground. He went across the street to Calvin Scriven, who had his girlfriend, Tarshia Coleman, call 911.
“The foregoing facts support that Jones got home at approximately 6:25 p.m. and was unloading his groceries and collecting mail from the mailbox when he was attacked, causing him to be incapacitated by the time Walker called at 6:33 p.m.,” Mumma said. She alleges that the man Ava Williams saw sitting in Jones’ car was the one who attacked Jones.
Jones’ body was found between the carport steps and his Town Car, with his legs pointing toward the street. In his pockets was $952.70. He also had a briefcase in his trunk containing $1,416. His wallet was missing but jewelry and money in his bedroom were not taken.
In her motion, Mumma said Winston-Salem police detectives missed opportunities to pursue possible leads and do critical follow-ups.
For example, police never got the names of 30 to 40 people in a large crowd that gathered outside the crime scene on the night of Nov. 15, 2002. While they canvassed the neighborhood, officers never went back to houses where no one answered, Mumma said.
Two women, whose names were not obtained, told police that they should talk to a 17-year-old boy who lived at 901 Moravia St. Officers talked to people who lived at that address — Stevie Lindsay who told police he lived there with his sister, Uelyne Lindsay, and her son, Tony Lindsay. Police never interviewed Tony Lindsay, Mumma said in her motion.
It doesn’t appear Winston-Salem police ever talked to Hazel Gilbert, who was Jones’ girlfriend, or followed other leads, including one that said Jones bailed out someone named Red who owed people money. Red, whose real name is not indicated, was not interviewed.
One major miss, Mumma alleges, is that police didn’t do much follow up on the house across the street — 916 Moravia St., which she said was a known crack house. More importantly, Ava Williams’ description of a small-framed man sitting inside of Jones’ car around the time that Jones would have been attacked matched the description of a man known to live at 916 Moravia St.
Williams said that she saw that same man, who she said was nicknamed “Horne,” loitering on the corner of Moravia Street around 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 15, 2002.
Last year, Mumma requested DNA testing to see if that man was the one who attacked Jones. Forsyth County prosecutors filed a motion Monday asking a judge to prohibit any mention of DNA results because they alleged Mumma had failed to turn over lab reports. Prosecutors said in the motion that the DNA results did not match the man.
Winston-Salem police also spoke to a young boy who said he saw someone he described as Hispanic jump over two fences near Jones’ house. There was also a birthday party at a house down the street from Jones’ house. It doesn’t appear that police ever got a list of who attended the party or interviewed anyone who went to the party.
By Nov. 19, 2002, Winston-Salem police had narrowed their search for suspects Cauthen, Banner, Brayboy, Bryant and Tolliver.
At 2:30 p.m. Nov. 19, 2002, Arlene Tolliver, Jermal Tolliver’s mother, called Winston-Salem police, saying that her son “hasn’t been the same since that homicide on Moravia St.” She told police she believed her son knew who killed Jones and that since Jones’ death, Jermal had stayed home and had not hung out with his friends, Cauthen and Banner.
Over the next several hours, Winston-Salem police pulled Cauthen, Banner, Bryant, Tolliver and Brayboy into interrogation rooms at the Winston-Salem Police Department on Cherry Street. They would sit in those interrogation rooms from between five to eight hours before a recorded statement was made in which they all admitted involvement in Jones’ death.
They all initially denied that they were involved in Jones’ murder. In testimony before the Innocence Inquiry Commission in March 2020, Cauthen, Banner, Tolliver and Bryant said that police detectives coerced them into making false statements.
The teens were told by police that they would get the death penalty if they didn’t tell what happened.
Juveniles cannot get the death penalty. Jermal Tolliver testified at a court hearing that one of the detectives pointed to a place on his arm and said that would be where the needle would go for the lethal injection.
“WSPD spent eight hours scaring, manipulating, and feeding teenagers information, resulting in false confessions that not only contradicted each other, but contradicted the crime scene evidence,” Mumma argues in the motion.
According to the motion, several of the boys said that the attack happened near a white van parked in Jones’ driveway. Police found Jones’ body near his Town Car, then moved it to the van to collect evidence. The teens also said that they attacked Jones with a baseball bat, but an expert hired by one of the trial attorneys determined that Jones’ injuries were not consistent with being attacked with a bat, the motion said.
According to testimony at the commission hearing, Winston-Salem detectives Sean Flynn and Stan Nieves admitted that they falsely told Bryant and Tolliver that they could get the death penalty. They never made mention of it in their reports on the interviews, according to commission records.
In some instances, police investigators told some of the teenagers’ mothers, particularly Cauthen’s and Tolliver’s, that their sons were not being truthful. The mothers then talked to their sons, imploring them to tell the truth.
The teens’ statements also were inconsistent as to whether they planned the attack, who was involved, who attacked Jones first, how they approached his house and who tied up Jones. In statements, some of the boys indicated that Jones was lying on his back, even though police found him lying on his stomach.
The key witness in the case turned out to be Jessicah Black, who was 16 at the time. Black testified at two trials for the five teenagers, saying that she heard them plan to rob Jones and that she drove them to Jones’ house and watched them go toward the house. She said she heard Jones scream as he was attacked. In March 2020, Black recanted, saying that police detectives coerced her for hours into making false statements against the boys.
She also told police that she took the boys to Dollar General and Mayfair, where they bought tape, but the stores didn’t sell that kind of tape, and surveillance video from the Dollar General doesn’t show anyone matching the five boys’ description going into the store, Mumma’s motion said.
Hayley Cleary, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, testified at the commission hearing in March 2020 that this case is similar to what happened to five boys convicted of raping a woman in Central Park. The boys, who made false statements to police after hours of interrogation, were exonerated years later after DNA evidence linked the crime to one man.
In Winston-Salem, the boys also were isolated in interview rooms for long periods of time and because they had less-developed minds than adults, they were also more likely to make false statements when police told them they could go home, Cleary said.
Mumma said that the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office should consent to a finding of innocence before the evidentiary hearing on April 18.
Barring that, the three-judge panel should find that the four men are innocent after the hearing.