On Friday, Jessicah Black told a panel of three superior court judges in Forsyth County that she lied when she told Winston-Salem police detectives nearly 20 years ago that five teenagers, the ones she hung out with almost every day for two months, robbed and killed NBA star Chris Paul’s grandfather, Nathaniel Jones, on a November night in 2002.
Black continued to lie, she said, when she testified at the boys’ criminal trials in 2004 and 2005, leading to their murder convictions and long prison sentences. They are now men in their 30s. One of them, Dorrell Brayboy, is dead. Brothers Rayshawn Banner and Nathaniel Cauthen remain in prison, serving a sentence of life, but with the possibility of parole. And two others, Christopher Bryant and Jermal Tolliver, have since been released.
She said she regrets what she did.
“I clicked with them. They were good guys,” she said. “They were charismatic. I had a good time with them.”
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And when a prosecutor mentioned that she had called the boys “knuckleheads,” Black said she didn’t mean anything negative; she said they were all teenagers doing what teenagers often do — having fun and sometimes getting into a little trouble. But, she said, they were not involved in Jones’ murder.
“They were teenage boys,” she said.
Black was a key witness. She was the only eyewitness who placed the men at the scene of the crime and testified that she heard some of them planning a robbery. She also said she sat on a picnic table in Belview Park, about 100 yards from Jones’ house, and could hear Jones screaming for help.
There was no other independent eyewitness testimony of the attack in the case. None of the fingerprints lifted from the crime scene and no DNA definitively linked the boys to the murder. The only piece of physical evidence used against the men was a shoe print impression on the hood of Jones’ car that authorities believed came from an Air Force 1 shoe seized from the home where Cauthen and Banner lived. An expert testified that the impression could have come from that shoe or another similar shoe.
All five boys gave statements to police admitting their involvement.
The credibility of the statements are at the center of the hearing this week. The men and their attorneys argue that the Winston-Salem police detectives used coercive techniques, such as threatening them with the death penalty even though juveniles don’t qualify for such punishment, to get false confessions. The statements, according to testimony and court documents, are inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence.
The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission voted in March 2020 that there was sufficient evidence that the four men might be innocent, resulting in a hearing of a three-judge panel that began on Monday.
Sitting on the witness stand in Courtroom 6A Friday morning, Black said she had spent years suppressing the case and her role in it. She finally recanted when former Houston Chronicle reporter Hunter Atkins, who never published a story about the case, reached out to her and interviewed her for several hours at an IHOP restaurant in Winston-Salem. She has since been interviewed under oath by staff attorney Julie Bridenstine with the Innocence Commission, and she testified in March 2020 under oath at a hearing of the Innocence Commission. Both times, she maintained that everything she told police and everything she testified to at trial was false.
Black said Friday that she lied to Winston-Salem police detectives after what felt like hours of interrogation. She said whenever she tried to tell investigators what really happened on the night of Nov. 15, 2002, she was accused of lying. They wouldn’t back off, she said, until she started telling them what they wanted to hear. And the detectives told her that they knew she wasn’t telling the truth because the boys had already confessed, Black said.
“It seemed like it was easier to tell them what they wanted to hear so I could get out of there and go home,” Black said.
At the time, Black was 16. She is now 36. Under questioning from Julie Boyer, Cauthen’s attorney, Black said detectives either never told her about the evidence in the case or lied about it. For example, she said detectives falsely told her that skin DNA was found in her car and they never told her that no blood was ever found in her car. Courts have ruled that detectives can lie to suspects that they are interviewing.
Jones, 61, was brutally attacked in his carport on Nov. 15, 2002 just after he had gotten home from work. He owned a gas station on New Walkertown Road and he was likely attacked as he was getting his mail and putting groceries away. Winston-Salem police found Jones lying on his stomach with his hands bound behind his back with black tape. Black tape was wrapped around his mouth, and he had been beaten. An autopsy report said he died from arrhythmia brought on by the stress of the attack and blunt-force trauma.
It would be four days before Winston-Salem police turned their focus on the teenagers, starting with a call from Arlene Tolliver, Jermal Tolliver’s mother, who told police that her son had been acting strangely ever since Jones’ death. She told police she thought her son knew something about Jones’ murder. Winston-Salem police then brought Jermal Tolliver, who testified this week, into the police station, and he mentioned the people he hung around with on Nov. 15, 2002 — Banner, Bryant, Brayboy, Cauthen and Black. All of them were separately brought to the police station.
The four men as well as Brayboy in an interview with the commission before his death have said Winston-Salem police coerced false confessions from them. Tolliver testified Thursday that one of the detectives, Sean Flynn, told him that if he didn’t tell the truth, he could get the death penalty. The other men said they were also threatened with the death penalty, according to testimony and court documents. Bryant said that a detective pointed to a place on his arm where he told Bryant a needle for lethal injection would go.
Black said Friday that Winston-Salem police told her she could be charged with murder at any time, even 20 years later. They told her she could get a life sentence, according to Black. Black has never been charged in Jones’ murder.
The truth, Black said, was that she spent most of the afternoon and that night of Nov. 15, 2002, with most of the boys, as they drove around the neighborhood. The initial plan was that they were going to go to a party but that didn’t happen. Black said they went to Creekside Lanes, a bowling alley, but a security guard kicked them out. They didn’t find out anything about Jones’ death until they drove to the neighborhood and saw flashing police lights, caution tape and a large number of people gathered near Jones’ house.
When Black said she tried to tell police that initially, detectives didn’t believe her. They told her the boys had already confessed so they knew she was lying, Black said.
Then it became a guessing game, she said. Black said she would take little clues that the detectives gave her and then try to come up with a story that would get the detectives to back off.
“Everything I said to them had to be changed time and time again,” Black said.
And when they backed off, she thought, “I finally got it right.”
As she testified Friday, all four men, seated beside their attorneys, cried.
On cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin pressed Black on what she alleged were inconsistencies between her testimony Friday and previous statements she made to Atkins, the Innocence Commission, at trial and to police detectives.
For example, Martin questioned Black about her testimony that she was never in Belview Park on the night of Jones’ death. She said that Cauthen had previously testified that Black had performed oral sex on him in Belview Park. Black denied that happened that night and she insisted that she and Cauthen never dated.
Martin also asked Black about her statements about drug use at the commission hearing in March 2020. According to Martin, Black had testified that she had used cocaine at age 30 but then changed it to using it at 28. Black said she had only used marijuana when she was a teenager and had never tried anything else until she was 30.
Martin also asked her about a store called Hot Topic at Hanes Mall. Black had said she had gone to the store to visit a friend either on Nov. 15, 2002 or the day before. Martin said Hot Topic did not have a store at Hanes Mall at the time.
Black said there was and even if there wasn’t, she knew she had gone to Hanes Mall to visit her friend.
Over the years, Black told few people that she lied in court. She received threats on her life after the first two trials. After her testimony at the Innocence Inquiry Commission in March 2020, she and her family, including her son, received online death threats. But she said she wants to be part of making this right.
Black said it weighs on her that her testimony resulted in the boys — who she hung out with and had a good time with — going to prison.
“It’s a big kick in the ass,” she said.
The hearing will continue next week, with Black expected back on the stand. The other three men are also expected to testify, and prosecutors with the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office, which is opposing any exoneration, will present their case to the judges.