Photo: Jessicah Black testified before the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission on Tuesday. (screenshot)
It was a crime that shocked Winston-Salem.
Nathaniel Jones, a 61-year-old African-American gas-station owner, beloved among his Southside neighbors, was beaten, tied up, robbed and left for dead in his garage on Nov. 15, 2002.
Making the loss more poignant, Jones’ grandson, Chris Paul, scored 61 points in honor of his grandfather days after the murder as a member of the West Forsyth High School basketball team. By the time the trial rolled around in 2004, Paul was a rising talent on the Wake Forest University basketball team, where he helped the Demon Deacons achieve their first No. 1 ranking. Now well into the 14th year of an NBA career, Paul has played for the New Orleans Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and, since a July 2019 trade, with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Five African-American boys, all 14 or 15 years old who lived in the neighborhood, were convicted in connection with Jones’ death. Nathaniel Cauthen and Rayshawn Banner were convicted of murder and are serving life with parole. Christopher Bryant and Jermal Tolliver completed their sentences for second-degree murder and common-law robbery in 2017, and were released. Dorrell Brayboy completed his sentence for second-degree murder in 2018. He died in a stabbing in Winston-Salem in August 2019.
Cauthen, Banner, Tolliver and Bryant filed claims of innocence with the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission, variously in 2015, 2018 and 2020. Although Brayboy also proclaimed his innocence, the commission is not investigating Brayboy’s case because North Carolina law requires that a claim of innocence be made by a living person.
The commission is holding hearings this week in Raleigh to consider Cauthen, Banner, Bryant and Tolliver’s claims. A finding by five out of eight commissioners of factual innocence would result in a referral to a three-judge panel, which in turn could dismiss charges and free Cauthen and Banner.
The commission submitted numerous samples for DNA testing and none of the DNA profiles of the defendants were found on the samples, Julie Bridenstein, a staff attorney, told the commission on Monday.
Jessicah Black, a 16-year-old white girl from Davidson County, had been hanging out with Cauthen, Banner, Bryant, Tolliver and Brayboy on the day of Jones’ murder. Prosecutors told the jury that Black was an accomplice who drove the defendants to the crime scene and then drove them away after the murder.
Black “was the only eyewitness who claimed to see the defendants commit the crime,” Bridenstein told the commissioners.
“I didn’t even know — because I thought as a young’un, you had to have an adult present — I didn’t know that was only if you were arrested and stuff,” Black told Bridenstein during her deposition in October 2019. “Just like I didn’t know that at any point in time I could have gotten up and left out of that place, and they couldn’t ask me any more questions…. It was like eight, nine hours or something they had me in there. There was some decent detectives, but that one, he hollered so much, it made me feel crazy.
“The gist of it is, everything I said on the stand — I can tell you, them anybody — all that shit’s not true,” Black continued. “I said what I said because I was scared half to death I was getting charged with wrongful death. I was so scared I was going to jail. And nothing that I said was right. And they weren’t satisfied until I gave them the answer they wanted, and that’s what I did.”
Black drove a 1986 Mercury Cougar. At the time of Jones’ murder, she had known the five boys for about two months. They smoked weed in Belview Park, near Jones’ house on Moravia Street. After school on Nov. 15, 2002, she drove around the neighborhood, knowing she was likely to find her friends walking down the street. She picked up the boys, Black said under deposition, and they drove to Creekside Bowling Lane, where they got kicked out for being too loud, and then moved on to Hanes Mall. They’d driven back to the neighborhood and were cruising a block where they knew someone they could buy weed from, Black said, when they noticed the area was swarming with SUVs and police cars. Black said she let the boys out, and then drove to visit her friend, Elizabeth Fowler, in Welcome, before going home.
Winston-Salem police Detective Mark Griffin, the lead detective in the case, interviewed Fowler in November 2003.
Citing Fowler’s report, Bridenstein told commissioners: “She said in the report that Jessicah Black told her that the defendants had killed a man in Winston-Salem. She stated that she thought this conversation happened the Saturday after the man was killed.”
Fowler’s statement to Bridenstein during her Jan. 8, 2020 deposition is markedly different from what is represented in Griffin’s report.
“She said she did not remember discussing anyone being killed with Jessicah Black,” Bridenstein told the commissioners. “She was able to review Detective Griffin’s report with us, and she said she did not remember any of that and did not remember talking to the police. She said she did remember Jessicah Black would hang out with black kids.”
Bridenstein also interviewed Tamara Black, who is the mother of Jessicah Black.
According to Bridenstein, Tamara Black said under deposition that “she reported that the day after Jessicah Black was interviewed by the police Jessicah told her that she was scared and that she told them what they wanted to hear. Tamara Black also reported that she had a recent conversation with Jessicah where Jessicah said that what she said at the trial was not the truth.”
Her false testimony eats at her conscience, Black told Bridenstein.
“Because it’s pretty much I said what I said to save my ass, to keep me from going to jail,” she said. “Not realizing at 16, that’s prison their whole lives. Because at the end of the day, even if you get out of prison, it’s hard to find a job. Hell, it’s hard to find people who will rent to you.”
Even in death, Black observed, a false conviction sticks with you.
When Brayboy died, Black noted, the headline in the Winston-Salem Journal mentioned that he had been “convicted as a teen of killing Chris Paul’s grandfather.”
“That should not be the headline,” Black said. “That should not be the what’s known as when you’re reporting his death.”