Relying on expert evidence, the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission decided that four men from Winston-Salem have produced substantial evidence of their probable innocence. Rayshawn Banner, Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver, and Nathaniel Cauthen had been convicted of causing the 2002 death of Nathaniel Jones, the grandfather of NBA player Chris Paul.
Three of the four men were 15 when the crime was committed; the other was 14. Two of the men finished their sentences in 2017, while two are serving a sentence of life without parole. A fifth man convicted of the crime died after his release from prison.
Jones owned a gas station. After returning home from work one evening, he was beaten and robbed. He suffered a fatal heart arrhythmia that doctors attributed to the beating.
Substantial DNA was recovered from the crime scene, but no DNA samples matched any of the defendants. The police also “matched” a partial shoeprint to a common sneaker that was found in one defendant’s home, but the sneaker did not belong to the defendant, who had a smaller shoe size.
Jessicah Black, who was 16 at the time, testified at trial that she drove the defendants to the scene of the crime. Black later recanted. She explained to a reporter that she had been pressured by police detectives to tell the story they wanted to hear. She feared that she would be sent to jail if she did not give the testimony that the police detective insisted was the truth.
Courts have generally adopted the rule that recantation testimony does not warrant a new trial. The rule is premised on the notion that all recantations are unworthy of belief because a witness who tells inconsistent stories is not credible. Of course, if the witness is not credible, then the recanted testimony is just as unworthy of belief as the recantation. In a nation that values juries as factfinders, one might expect to see recantation evidence evaluated by a jury at a new trial rather than being rejected wholesale by judges for the sake of preserving doubtful convictions.
Since recantations rarely serve as grounds for a new trial, police officers have little to fear if they pressure witnesses into giving false testimony. The recantation rule shields the police from concern that an eventual recantation of pressure-induced testimony will affect a conviction.
In addition to Black’s testimony, prosecutors relied on confessions given by the young defendants. All four told the Innocence Commission that they were pressured into giving false confessions. Cauthen, for example, testified that the investigating detective told him that he would receive a lethal injection if he did not confess. The confessions all but assured that the boys would be convicted.
Many jurisdictions have adopted laws that require the police to record custodial interrogations to assure that confessions are not coerced. North Carolina adopted a recording law with regard to homicide interrogations in 2007. It was not in effect when the four young men were interrogated.
Research demonstrates that police pressure causes false confessions. Psychologists have found that police detectives presume the guilt of the people they interrogate. Even detectives who play by the rules (and coercing a confession is clearly against the rules) “ask questions and interpret the responses in such a way as to confirm guilt. Even denial is seen as evidence of guilt.” Young people are more likely than adults to make a false confession in response to police pressure.
Psychologists have found that “under the intense isolation and stress of a long interrogation, investigators willingly or unwillingly can place intense psychological pressure on suspects.” Young suspects tend to be deferential to authority figures. They say what they are expected to say, and sometimes come to believe that the statements they are prompted to give must be true.
Hayley Cleary, a psychologist with expertise in false confessions, compared the case of the four young men “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 testified that the interrogator used “maximization techniques” to take advantage of the young defendant. Those techniques “heighten suspects’ anxiety, and make them feel like confession is inevitable.” Accusing the suspect of lying and shutting down protests of innocence are techniques designed to make a suspect agree with the interrogator, even if the suspect must lie to do so.
Two police detectives admitted that they told the minors that they could receive the death penalty. Those threats were untrue, as North Carolina law did not permit executions for crimes committed by minors. Threatening a dire punishment is a “maximization technique.”
Cleary explained that the brains of children have not developed sufficiently to allow them to appreciate the consequences of making a false statement. When (as happened here) a detective tells a suspect they will be allowed to go home if they confess, giving a confession might seem like a good idea. In addition, children are less likely than adults to realize that American courts (unlike courts in much of the world) allow the police to lie to a suspect in order to induce a confession.
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.”
In addition, none of the four have an IQ above 80, suggesting severe cognitive defects that an adult authority figure can easily exploit to induce a false confession.
The Innocence Commission voted 5-3 to find that there was ““sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review.” The prosecution refused to admit that it prosecuted innocent defendants and vowed to fight to preserve the convictions.
As a result of that finding, the case will move forward to a three-judge panel convened by the superior court. Both sides will present evidence to the panel, which will then decide whether the defendants are innocent. If panel members unanimously agree that the defendants proved their innocence by clear and convincing evidence, the four men will be exonerated.