Rayshawn Banner awaits three-judge panel to consider innocence

Rayshawn Banner, one of “The Winston-Salem 5”

                In 2004, brothers Rayshawn Banner and Nathaniel Cauthen were convicted of the murder and robbery of Nathaniel Jones. In 2005, their co-defendants, Jermal Tolliver, Christopher Bryant, and Dorrell Brayboy were convicted after a separate trial. Banner was only 14 years old and the others were only 15 years old when the crime occurred. All five boys have claimed innocence at their trials and have continued to claim innocence since that time. 

The Death of Nathaniel Jones

                On November 15, 2002, Nathaniel Jones was found beaten outside his home in Winston-Salem.  Law enforcement arrived at the scene around 7:50 p.m. and found Mr. Jones lying face down in his carport. Black tape had been used to tie his hands behind his back and gag him. The perpetrator(s) did not enter the home and roughly $950 had not been taken, but Mr. Jones’s wallet was missing. Mr. Jones died from a heart attack at the scene as a result of the attack.

Detectives collected blood samples, the tape used to bind Mr. Jones, a toboggan, Chapstick, fabric from the crime scene, and photographs of a footwear impressions left on the hood of Mr. Jones’ car. 

                Police canvassed the neighborhood and took statements from others nearby. A close family friend of the victim drove past the house earlier and noticed that the victim’s brake lights were on and could see a small black male in the front seat. She thought it was one of the victim’s grandchildren and drove on.

The Investigation

A few days after the murder, Arlene Tolliver, Jermal’s mother, contacted Detective Rose and reported that her son had not been the same since the night of the homicide and she thought he might know who was responsible. Detective Rose and Det. Flynn found Jermal on his front porch and told him that his name had surfaced in a current investigation.

Initially, Tolliver denied any involvement or knowledge about the crime. Det. Rose told Tolliver that his mother believed he knew something about the murder. Tolliver insisted he knew nothing. Later, Tolliver then said that he waited at his house for his father to bring him money when Dorrell Brayboy, Nathaniel Cauthen, and Rayshawn Banner came by. They were going to a bowling alley and before leaving, Cauthen and Banner told him they had “robbed an old man and taped him up.”

All five black boys were eventually brought to the station.  Each boy denied involvement and were either told that they faced the possibility of being sentenced to death and or were told that the other boys were pinning the murder on them, or both.  Eventually, they all confessed, but gave stories inconsistent with each other and with the known facts.

Jessicah Black

                Jessicah Black, a white friend of the boys, was also brought in for questioning. She admitted to driving the boys around the night of the murder and was eventually told the victim’s blood was found in her car, which was not true, and she could be charged.  Her story evolved to include the boys joking in the car about robbing someone and the boys buying tape, although she said the tape was silver instead of black.  Jessicah stated that she drove the boys to Belview Park and while she sat at on one of the picnic tables, the boys took off across the park toward Mr. Jones’s house.  She said she heard banging, but the boys returned and acted normally.  She also said she saw an imprint of what looked like a wallet in Cauthen’s pocket. She dropped the boys off to change clothes, then picked them back up and went to a bowling alley. When they came back, they drove by the crime scene and saw detectives and neighbors outside. They asked what had happened and were told that there had been a robbery.

Trials

                Law enforcement took hair samples and blood from the boys, but none of the physical evidence from the crime scene was linked to them except one of the impressions from the hood of the car.  That impression was found to be the same size, make, and general wear pattern as a pair of sneakers found at the Banner/Cauthen residence.  Importantly, the sneakers were Nike Air Force 1, one of the most popular sneakers of hip hop culture at the time.  Four pairs were found in the Banner/Cauthen home alone.

                Although attorneys tried to suppress the confessions as coerced through lies and fear tactics, the suppression motions were denied.  All five boys were convicted based on Jessicah Black’s testimony, their own statements, and the footwear impression.  Banner and Cauthen were found guilty of First-Degree Murder and Robbery with a Dangerous Weapon and were sentenced to life in prison. Bryant, Tolliver, and Brayboy were found guilty of Second-Degree Murder and Common Law Robbery and spent twelve years in prison before being released in recent years.

The North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission Process

                In March 2020, an eight-member panel of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission held a hearing to review the innocence claims of Banner, Cauthen, Bryant and Tolliver. Brayboy’s case was not included because he tragically passed away the year before. At the hearing, Jessicah Black recanted her testimony and asserted that she lied in court after law enforcement coerced her into implicating the boys in the crime. She told the Commission that she was scared of going to jail, so she told law enforcement what they wanted to hear.  It wasn’t until the Commission hearing that Jessicah learned law enforcement had lied to her about the victim’s blood being in her car.  She also learned the time of the murder was before 8 o’clock, which made her the alibi witness to the boys’ innocence.

Dr. Hayley Cleary, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., testified that this case has numerous risk factors that could lead to the five boys making false confessions. She pointed out that no physical evidence tied the boys to the crime scene, including DNA, and that the case is eerily similar to the Central Park Five case.

“[T]he boys, because of their age, lack of maturity and intellectual limitations, were susceptible to making false confessions. The boys were vulnerable to Winston-Salem police detectives’ aggressive interrogation, which included telling the boys falsely that they could face the death penalty. The only clear evidence against the boys were their statements, which were all inconsistent to the physical evidence found at the crime scene. Detectives also got the boys to confess by playing one against the other; they would play snippets of interviews from one codefendant to another,” she said.

The Commission found “sufficient evidence of innocence to merit judicial review” and, with that recommendation, Chief Justice Beasley appointed a three-judge panel to consider whether there is clear and convincing evidence of innocence.  The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence represents Rayshawn Banner and will present evidence of his innocence during an evidentiary hearing scheduled for Spring 2021.

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