Jessicah Black’s testimony more than a decade ago helped seal the fate of five teenage boys accused of robbing and beating to death the grandfather of NBA star Chris Paul. But Black now says that testimony in two separate trials was a lie.
Black recanted in a deposition that was played Monday during the first day of a hearing in front of the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission in Raleigh. The hearing is focused on the claims of innocence made by four of the five charged — Nathaniel Arnold Cauthen; his brother, Rayshawn Denard Banner; Christopher Levon Bryant; and Jermal Tolliver. Dorrell Brayboy died in August 2019 before he could file a claim of innocence.
At the time of their arrest, four of the boys were 15. Banner was 14. The commission will determine if there is sufficient evidence of innocence in the case. The hearing is scheduled to last until Friday.
Nathaniel Jones, 61, a friendly church-going gas-station owner, was found lying in the carport of his home on Moravia Street on Nov. 15, 2002. At the time, Paul was a senior standout basketball player at West Forsyth High School. He memorably scored 61 points in a game soon after his grandfather’s death. Paul now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
During two different trials, Black testified that she drove the boys to and from a park near Jones’ house and had heard the boys talk about robbing Jones. She said she heard three of the boys yelling profanities and telling Jones to get down. She said she heard a voice she didn’t recognize shouting “Stop! Leave me alone.”
Afterward, she drove the boys away, took them to her house to change clothes and then they all went to a bowling alley and a mall.
But in an interview with a former reporter with the Houston Chronicle (Paul previously played for the Houston Rockets) and later in a deposition with Innocence Commission investigators, Black recanted her testimony.
“It’s pretty much I said what I said to save my ass, to keep me from going to jail,” Black said in a video recording of the deposition that was played to commission members Monday morning.
At the time of Jones’ death, Black was 16 and had become friends with the boys in the previous month or two. She was never criminally charged. Attorneys for the boys argued at trial that her testimony was in an exchange for some type of leniency from prosecutors.
Winston-Salem police interviewed Black for more than three hours, according to testimony at the commission hearing. Black said at least one of the police officers yelled at her and she had no idea that she could leave at any time or that she was supposed to have an adult in the interview room with her.
“There was this one (officer.)... I can’t remember his name. ... He was so aggressive and he hollered at me. He was almost spitting,” she said.
What actually happened, Black said, was typical — she drove around to where the boys lived and when she saw them, she picked them up in her car and they drove around, possibly making stops in Midway, the mall and a bowling alley, where they got kicked out. She said she told police she couldn’t remember much because they were all smoking marijuana.
Winston-Salem police also took her car and she was told that skin DNA was found that possibly matched Jones, Black said. In reality, no DNA was found in her car.
Julie Bridenstine, a staff attorney for the commission, testified that commission investigators submitted items to the State Crime Lab for testing and there were no DNA matches for any of the defendants. There was also a DNA profile for a female found on a piece of evidence, but that DNA did not match Black, she said.
Black also told commission investigators that the late Eric Saunders, one of the prosecutors in the case, arranged for Black to take a minivan to the crime scene. She said Saunders, an unidentified white man and a black woman who she believed was one of Jones’ daughters were in the minivan.
Commission investigators had not been able to corroborate that this happened. Chris Paul’s family members said they did not participate in anything resembling what Black said happened.
Hunter Atkins, a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle, also played a prominent role in Monday’s hearing. Beth Tanner, associate director of the commission, testified that Black first recanted her testimony during a phone conversation with Atkins. Atkins had tried to contact her for months and he also had talked to many of the defendants and their attorneys, including Christine Mumma, who represents Banner and is the executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence.
In an audio recording of the phone conversation, Black is strongly resistant to talking to Atkins but eventually relents. In her deposition, Black revealed that Atkins paid Black’s car payment.
Tanner confirmed that this happened but after Black had recanted her testimony.
Stephen Riley, executive editor of the Houston Chronicle, said Atkins no longer works for the paper. Atkins has never published a piece about the case.
“His editors knew nothing about any arrangement to make any payment to or for a potential witness,” Riley said in an email. “(I)f such an arrangement did exist, it would have violated our policies and practices.”
Atkins also has a pending misdemeanor charge of harboring a runaway child in Texas.
The Innocence Commission rarely holds hearings on claims of innocence. Out of 2,700 claims the commission has reviewed since it started operating in 2007, it has held 15 hearings. Twelve people have been exonerated through the commission process.
This is the second case from Forsyth County to have a hearing in front of the commission. Last year, the commission found sufficient evidence that Merritt Drayton Williams of Winston-Salem was innocent in the 1965 murder of Blanche Bryson. Bryson, 65, was found strangled to death in her home. A three-judge panel is scheduled to hold a hearing in May in Williams’ case.
Cauthen, Banner, Bryant and Tolliver are all expected to testify in a hearing that will also feature expert testimony. Commission members also will have a chance to hear a recorded deposition with Brayboy that was done prior to his death.
Five out of eight commissioners must find that there is sufficient evidence of innocence for the cases to move toward a panel of three superior court judges. That panel will then determine whether any of the defendants should be exonerated.