The crime was horrendous.
In 2002, Nathaniel Jones, often described in news reports as “a friendly church-going man who owned a gas station,” was found lying in the carport of his home on Moravia Street. He had been gagged and bound and beaten until he died from heart arrhythmia.
His family, including his grandson, basketball star Chris Paul, mourned his loss.
After an investigation and two separate trials, five boys — Nathaniel Cauthen, his younger brother, Rayshawn Banner, Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Dorrell Brayboy — were all convicted of robbing and murdering Jones. Four of the boys were 15; Banner was 14. The conviction was based largely on their confessions and a witness, Jessicah Black, who said she heard them discuss plans to rob Jones and heard Jones scream for help while being beaten.
But later, four of the boys — Brayboy was killed in an unrelated incident before he could do so — filed claims of innocence with the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission. After a week of hearings, the eight-member commission, composed of legal professionals, concluded last week that mistakes had been made — likely resulting in a miscarriage of justice. From here, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley will assign a three-judge panel to determine if the four men should be exonerated.
The commission found valid reasons to re-examine the case. Among them, that the confessions were likely coerced, as the four claimed while speaking to the commission.
Two of the detectives involved in the case testified to the commission that they falsely told two of the boys that they could get the death penalty for their alleged role in the crime, apparently to scare them. (Juveniles cannot get the death penalty.)
Also, Black recanted her testimony, claiming that Winston-Salem police coerced her into making false statements.
Hayley Cleary, an associate professor of criminal justice at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, testified via video, explaining the circumstances that would make the boys highly susceptible to making false statements. She also noted inconsistencies in the boys’ statements that didn’t fit the physical evidence found at the crime scene.
No forensic evidence links the boys to the crime scene.
And Cleary referenced the Central Park Five, teenagers who were convicted of the brutal rape and beating of a female jogger in 1989 but were exonerated in 2002, saying she saw startling similarities in the cases.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill, who is currently running for N.C. attorney general, has accused members of the commission of being biased. He supports the conviction and said that he looks forward to presenting evidence to the independent three-judge panel.
The perpetrator(s) of this horrendous crime deserve to be punished. But if the wrong parties have been convicted, that means the guilty party is likely to be roaming free today, perhaps committing further crimes. That’s one reason the case deserves a thorough examination. The other, obviously, is that if the four are innocent, their lives shouldn’t be wasted in prison.
This is likely to be stressful for everyone involved, including Chris Paul and his family. They thought the matter closed. They deserve our compassion as old wounds are reopened.
But the judgment of our state’s unique innocence commission has been justified by the exoneration of 12 people since it was established in 2007. Its recommendations must be taken seriously.
We welcome the investigation.