The Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office said the murder convictions of four men accused of killing NBA star Chris Paul’s grandfather should be upheld, according to a court document filed last month in Forsyth Superior Court.
Earlier this year, the eight-member N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission voted 5-3 that there was sufficient evidence that the four men — Nathaniel Cauthen; his younger brother, Rayshawn Banner, Christopher Bryant and Jermal Tolliver — might be innocent in the 2002 murder of Nathaniel Jones. Jones, 61, was found lying in the carport of his home on Monravia Street on Nov. 15, 2002.
He died of cardiac arrhythmia after he had been severely beaten. Between 2004 and 2005, five men, who were all teenagers at the time, were convicted in Jones’ death.
Dorrell Brayboy never got the chance to file a claim for innocence because he was stabbed to death in August 2019. Cauthen and Banner are serving life sentences; Bryant and Tolliver have served their time.
The commission has referred the case to a panel of three judges who have been chosen by Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. A hearing in Forsyth Superior Court has been scheduled for the week of Nov. 9. The three judges will ultimately determine if the four men should be exonerated.
A critical witness in the original trials, Jessicah Black, recanted her testimony, and the four men said Winston-Salem police investigators coerced their statements implicating them in the crime. An expert told the commission that this case had astonishing similarities to the famous case of five black and Hispanic boys who were exonerated in the 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park. Both cases involved young men of color and allegations of police coercing false confessions.
But in a court document filed July 13, Chief Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin said there is no credible new evidence that justifies vacating the murder convictions. Previously, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill has criticized the commission’s work in the case and accused commission investigators of being biased and not considering other pieces of evidence that might prove the men to be guilty.
Julie Boyer, attorney for Cauthen, and Mark Rabil, attorney for Tolliver, declined to comment. Christine Mumma, attorney for Banner, said the prosecutor’s response speaks for itself, and that these cases are always a battle.
“It’s clear that this case is not going to be any different,” Mumma said.
Bradley J. Bannon, attorney for Bryant, did not respond immediately to a message seeking comment.
In court papers, Martin focused much of her argument on the involvement of Jermal Tolliver’s mother in the police investigation.
Arlene Tolliver, Jermal’s mother, contacted a Winston-Salem police detective on Nov. 19, 2002, after the detective had helped canvass the neighborhood as part of the murder investigation, according to Martin. Arlene Tolliver told the detective that her son “hasn’t been the same since that homicide,” and that he wouldn’t leave the house. She also told the detective that her son had been hanging out with Cauthen and Banner, who she said “ran the streets,” and that her son knew something about Jones’ death.
Martin said at that point, Jermal Tolliver was not a suspect in Jones’ death. She said soon after, Jermal Tolliver voluntarily came to the police department for an interview. Cauthen, Banner, Bryant and Brayboy were also brought in and interviewed. Martin contends that all five boys — Banner was 14 and the rest were 15 at the time — gave statements about their involvement in Jones’ death.
Martin also argues that shoe impressions found on top of Jones’ car were consistent in “size, shape, design and wear pattern” with a pair of Nike Air Force sneakers that police seized from Cauthen and Banner’s house. An expert who testified at the hearing said he could not be certain that the sneakers seized by police made the shoe impressions on Jones’ car.
Arlene Tolliver told the commission via phone that police reports in the case were wrong and that she called police because she wanted to get more information about Jones’ death. She told commission members that she didn’t bring up her son and that it was the police detective who started asking her questions about her son.
Black recanted her trial testimony in which she said she drove the boys to and from the area around Jones’ house and heard the boys discuss plans to rob Jones. Black also testified that she sat on a picnic table in a park across from Jones’ house and heard Jones scream for help while he was being beaten.
Black told the commission and commission investigators that Winston-Salem police coerced her into making false statements and that everything she said in two separate trials was a lie.
Cauthen, Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Banner told commission that Winston-Salem police threatened and coerced them into making false confessions. They said investigators became angry each time they claimed innocence. They said they were told if they implicated themselves, they could go home.
According to testimony, Winston-Salem police 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 that in their reports. Under state law, juveniles cannot be sentenced to death if convicted of first-degree murder.
Hayley Cleary, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., told the commission that this case had numerous risk factors that could lead to the five boys making false confessions. She said no physical evidence tied the boys to the crime scene, including DNA. And the boys, because of their age, were immature and had intellectual limitations that made them susceptible to making false confessions. The boys, she said, were vulnerable to Winston-Salem police detectives’ aggressive interrogation, which included falsely telling the boys they could face the death penalty.
Cleary said the boys also were isolated in interview rooms for long periods of time and were more likely to give false statements when police told them they could go home.
According to Cleary, the boys’ statements also were inconsistent to the physical evidence found at the crime scene. Cauthen, Tolliver, Bryant and Banner told commission members that they started lying because police didn’t believe them when they told the truth and when they were told they could go home if they would just admit guilt.
Martin with the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office argued in court papers that all five men were tried and convicted after what she said was a fair trial, and that state appellate courts have found no error.
“There has been no credible new evidence that can satisfy the high burden placed on these defendants under the Statute,” she said. “In the interest of justice, each of the defendants’ convictions for the robbery and murder of Nathaniel Jones must remain intact.”