Day Five

April 24, 2022

Day five of the murder innocence hearing of the “Winston-Salem Five” finished with the testimonies of defendant Jermal Tolliver and key witness in the original trial Jessicah Black — an alleged accomplice of the teenagers on the night of Nathaniel Jones’ murder. 

Julie Boyer, the attorney representing Nathaniel Cauthen, questioned Black. Black, 36, was 16 at the time of the murder. Black remembers telling police officers during their interrogation of her what she was doing on Nov. 15, however, they would counteract each of her statements with accusations that she was lying. She also said that the police threatened her by saying they could put her in prison or convict her of murder at any time. She said she eventually just started telling them what they wanted to hear so she could go home. 

She testified at the 2004 and 2005 trials with the statement she gave police but has since recanted that testimony. Now, she has an entirely different story of that night than what she told police back in 2002. This account, she says, is the truth. 

Black was aware that she was putting herself at risk of perjury for recanting her statement and testifying in the hearing, but when asked by Boyer why she was here, she answered: “to get the truth out.” 

On the night Jones died, Black says she picked up the teenagers from their neighborhood to just drive around — an activity they did frequently after school in the early afternoon, often while smoking marijuana. Black said they spent the rest of the day together. 

While her memory is hazy on who exactly was hanging out together that night, she says at least some combination of the four defendants were there. She is confident that Cauthen was present, as the two of them were especially close and spent the most time together. 

Black is also unsure of the exact timeline of that night, in terms of where they stopped and when.

One of the stops they made was at Hanes Mall. She said that she and the boys split up when they arrived at the mall. She went to visit a friend who worked at one of the stores and the boys went off to do their own thing. 

Black and the boys also stopped at Creekside Lanes Bowling Center. Black said they weren’t there for long because they left after one of the boys got into a verbal altercation with a police officer. 

After leaving the bowling alley, Black testified that she returned to Moravia Street to take the boys home. Upon arrival, she said they saw several police cars and yellow crime scene tape surrounding Jones’ home. She added that they got out of the car to figure out what had happened, and then they all returned home. 

Within the next few days, police officers came to Black’s home to confiscate her car as evidence, and then she was also brought into the police department for questioning. 

Black described her interrogation as her “guessing” about the details of different aspects of the crime, like what object the boys hit Jones with or what color tape they used to bind Jones. 

“I finally got it right,” Black said in reference to the story police finally accepted before releasing her. 

Black said she had never been questioned by the police before and was unsure of her rights. While she said she was never threatened with the death penalty, she also said that the police did tell her that she could go to jail for life and could be convicted of murder at any point in time. She testified that the police never asked her if she would like her parents present or read her Miranda rights to her. Black said that she stayed in the interrogation room the entire time she was at the police department and was not aware she could leave. 

Black became emotional on the stand as the defense recalled what she had told police in 2002 and what she had said under oath at the trials. It wasn’t until the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission hearing that Black realized that the Air Force 1 shoe print and what she admits was a false testimony were the only pieces of damning evidence the prosecution had against the defendants. The discrepancies between what the police told her and the actual evidence of the case have only just been revealed to her in the past two years. 

Jessicah Black cries during her testimony. (Christa Dutton)

“You think about stuff like that,” Black said through her tears. “It weighs on your mind, and it weighs on your heart.” 

The defense also questioned Black on her interactions with Hunter Atkins — a sports reporter for the Houston Chronicle who conducted interviews with Black and ultimately led her to recant. 

Atkins persistently tried to contact Black for a couple of years. Black said that after Atkins explained the angle of his story — that he was trying to put a positive light on a tragic situation — she finally agreed to meet with him. 

Black testified that They met for the first time at an IHOP in Winston-Salem, and Atkins informed her of facts of the case that she didn’t know. Black said that after Atkins revealed to her how she had been deceived, she told him that everything she had said to the police and under oath was false.

Black also touched on aspects of her relationship with Atkins that have raised concerns, such as allegations of him bribing her. Black testified that Atkins never bribed her to make a certain statement or change her story. 

A couple of years ago, when Black had lost her job and home and was living out of her car, Black said Atkins paid her car payment, but that it was after she had recanted her testimony to him. 

“He just helped to help,” Black said during the hearing. 

Black said the two have not been in contact since. 

In their cross-examination, the Assistant District Attorney Jennifer Martin inquired about inconsistencies in what Black had just testified and her earlier testimonies at the Innocence Inquiry Commission hearings. 

At the hearing Friday, Black said she smoked marijuana as a teenager but did not experiment with cocaine until she was 30 years old. She had told a commissioner with the Innocence Inquiry Commission that she was 28 years old. 

Another detail Martin inquired about was which store in Hanes Mall Black said her friend worked at. On Friday, Black said she visited her friend at Hot Topic; however, Martin pointed out that there was no Hot Topic at Hanes Mall in 2002. Black persisted that whether or not it was Hot Topic that her friend worked at, she did go visit her friend. 

Martin also asked Black about her claim that she wasn’t in Belview Park on the night of the murder. Cauthen had previously testified that he and Black had oral sex in Belview Park. Black said she had performed oral sex on him but not on Nov. 15. 

The state was not able to finish their cross-examination of Black before the court adjourned at 1 p.m. on Friday.

Day five also included the state finishing their cross-examination of Tolliver that they began the previous day. Assistant District Attorney James Dornfried questioned Tolliver mainly on the events on Nov. 15. 

Dornfried pointed out that Tolliver never implicated himself in statements he made to police as he only made statements about what the other teenagers did that night and only described himself as the “lookout”.  

Throughout his testimony, Tolliver expressed his frustration at the fact that his testimony to police in 2002 does not match what he says to be true now. 

“That doesn’t mean it was true,” Tolliver repeated in response to Dornfried as he quoted Tolliver’s statement to police in 2002. 

The hearing will continue next week, and Black is expected to still be on the stand. The other three defendants are also expected to testify. 

 

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