Photo: Rayshawn Banner, Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Nathaniel Cauthen (l-r) could potentially be exonerated by a three-judge panel to be convened in Forsyth County superior court. (screenshots)

Four men convicted in the murder of Chris Paul’s grandfather could be exonerated after a state commission found “evidence of factual innocence.”

Four Winston-Salem men who were convicted in the murder of NBA star Chris Paul’s grandfather are a step closer to exoneration following a vote by the NC Innocence Inquiry Commission on Friday night, which found “sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review.”

Judge Thomas Lock, the alternate chair of the commission, said he will enter an order on Monday referring the case to Todd Burke, the senior resident superior court judge in Forsyth County, and requesting that the chief justice of the state Supreme Court convene a special session of superior court to hear evidence in the case.

Commissioners voted 5-3 to enter a finding of factual innocence after hearing from the four defendants, including brothers Nathaniel Cauthen and Rayshawn Banner, who are serving life with parole in a North Carolina prison; and Christopher Bryant and Jermal Tolliver, who were released after completing their sentences in 2017. A fifth defendant, Dorrell Brayboy, like the others, had proclaimed his innocence, but was fatally stabbed in Winston-Salem in August 2019 before he had the opportunity to file a claim with the commission. Cauthen, Bryant, Tolliver and Brayboy were 15 years old at the time of the crime, while Banner was 14.

All five defendants, like the victim, are African American.

Nathaniel Jones, a 61-year-old gas-station owner, was beloved among his neighbors and customers. He had left the gas station on the evening of Nov. 15, 2002 and returned to his home on Moravia Street in the Belview neighborhood. Later that night, he was found dead from a heart arrythmia in his carport after being beaten and robbed.

Beyond the brutal circumstances of the murder and the defendants’ young age, the case has attracted widespread attention because Jones’ grandson is Chris Paul. Then a promising basketball player at West Forsyth High School, Paul scored 61 points in honor of his grandfather shortly after the murder. He then played basketball for Wake Forest University, where he helped the Demon Deacons achieve their first-ever No. 1 ranking. In 2005, Paul was recruited to the NBA, and last July he was traded from the Houston Rockets to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Jessicah Black, who was 16 years old at the time of the crime, testified against the defendants, telling the court that she drove them to the scene. Now, an adult, Black recanted both in direct testimony to the innocence commission on March 11 and in a taped deposition played for the commission the previous day. Black also recanted in an interview with Hunter Atkins, who was at the time a sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Atkins separated from the Chronicle in February, and has not published a story on the case.

“The gist of it is everything I said on the stand, I can tell you, them, anybody, all that shit’s not true,” Black said in her deposition. “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 I said was right. And [the detectives who carried out the interrogation] weren’t satisfied until I gave them the answer they wanted. And that’s what I did.”

On Friday Cauthen, Banner Tolliver and Bryant all testified before the commission that they were coerced into giving false confessions.

“I didn’t know no better; I was a child,” Cauthen testified in response to a question about why he lied by telling detectives that he was involved in the crime, when he wasn’t. “I was 15 years old. I was forced to say something that I didn’t want to say. And the only way I knew to get out of the situation that I was in was to comply with what they was asking me for.”

Cauthen testified Lt. Randy Weavil told him he could go home if he told them what they wanted to hear. Cauthen also said he didn’t incriminate himself until after Weavil had threatened him.

“He threatened that I would do the rest of my life in prison,” Cauthen testified. “He threatened me with lethal injection. He threatened me to shoot me.”

Testifying before the commission, Hayley Cleary, a confessions and psychology expert, compared the case to the Central Park 5 case, in which five black and brown teenagers were convicted in the brutal beating of a white jogger in 1989, based on false confessions and without forensic evidence.

Cleary told commissioners that both dispositional factors, including the defendants’ adolescence and mental impairment, and situational factors, namely the interrogation process, create a risk of producing false confessions. And she cited in detail how each of the factors came into play during the interrogations of Cauthen, Banner, Tolliver and Bryant.

Because of neurobiological limitations on their ability to orient themselves toward the future, Cleary said, adolescents are less able than adults to withstand the pressures of interrogation and to think about how “admitting to something you didn’t do might feel like a good idea now, but it might cause serious problems down the road.”

She testified: “The idea of being relieved from a stressful interrogation or getting away from an uncomfortable or psychologically painful environment can be overwhelming to youth. And we’ve seen it in cases of documented false confessions, and I see indicators of this in the current case as well. For example, three of the defendants — Nathaniel Cauthen, Jermal Tolliver and Christopher Bryant — testified in their suppression hearings that they just wanted to go home. And they were specifically responding to interrogators’ questions by saying, ‘I want to go home.’”

Cleary testified that Cauthen, Banner, Bryant and Tolliver respectively scored 70, 71, 79 and 66 on IQ tests, adding, “These are severe cognitive deficits that are directly relevant to the interrogation context.”

Cleary said she saw “numerous examples” of what she called “maximization” techniques — defined as “a family of interrogation techniques intended to heighten suspects’ anxiety, and make them feel like confession is inevitable” — in the interrogations of the five defendants and Black.

“One [example] is this practice of accusing suspects of lying, and shutting down any attempt to deny their involvement in the crime,” Cleary testified. “We saw that in numerous interrogations, and also with Jessicah Black.”

The “most concerning maximization technique” Cleary said she saw in the interrogations was telling the suspects they could get the death penalty. “This process of heightening the suspect’s fear of what will happen to them if they don’t confess is very, very palpable,” Cleary testified, “and it’s a very effective way to obtain confessions — true confessions and false confessions.”

Two Winston-Salem police detectives, Stan Nieves and Sean Flynn, admitted to innocence commission Staff Attorney Julie Bridenstine that they told the defendants that they could receive the death penalty even though they knew that as juveniles, the boys could not receive the death penalty under state law.

Bridenstine told commissioners that Nieves’ supervisor told him he should not have brought up the death penalty, Bridenstine told the commissioners.

“He said that it was incorrect, and that it was poor judgment on his part,” she testified.

Bridenstine also testified that the commission “sent out numerous items for DNA testing,” and “none of the DNA profiles of the defendants were found on any of the items tested.”

The one piece of evidence linking Cauthen and Banner to the crime scene was a partial print of a Size 9 Nike Air Force 1 shoe found on the hood of the victim’s car, which matched a shoe seized as evidence from the boys’ home, according to an expert witness who testified before the commission. Banner testified on Friday that he wore a Size 8 ½ Nike Air Force 1 shoe, and that his brother wore a Size 9 at the time of the murder. Banner said he sometimes wore his brother’s shoes, but on the day in question he believed he was wearing his own shoes.

The commission also heard testimony from Winston-Salem police Detective Jason Swaim, a homicide detective who said he was assigned by his captain to review the case after the inquiry by the innocence commission was announced.

“Obviously, we as police officers don’t want to have the wrong people in jail, so if any new leads — anything were to come up that was to be investigated, then I would investigate it as a sworn law enforcement officer,” Swaim testified.

In his role as the detective assigned to review the case, Swaim went back and interviewed Jessicah Black in late February.

Swaim said he found Black to be “not very credible” based on “the changes in her story from 17 years ago ’til now.” He added, “She can remember exact times for certain points of it, but then certain parts, ‘Well, I think this. I think that.’”

Asked if there was anything at all in his interview with Black or his review of the case file “that gives you pause about these claimants’ convictions,” Swaim simply answered, “No.”

While he joined the police department a couple years after the initial investigation into Nathaniel Jones’ murder, Swaim testified that he has received no training on how to avoid false confessions.

Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, who is the Republican nominee for state attorney general, expressed reservations about the work by the innocence commission in a text to Triad City Beat.

“The initial process would be more efficient and fair if both sides were given the same opportunity to present evidence and call witnesses,” he said.

“The Forsyth County District Attorney’s office will never stop fighting for and pursuing justice on behalf of Nathaniel Jones and his family,” O’Neill added. “We look forward to actually participating and presenting all the evidence, in its entirety, to the independent three-judge panel.”

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