NBA star Chris Paul, dressed comfortably in matching light tan shirt and slacks and bright-white Nikes, looked at home when he stepped onstage at Wake Forest University’s Wait Chapel last month. 

He was home. Paul played point guard for the Demon Deacons for two seasons under the late coach Skip Prosser before entering the NBA draft in 2005. 

Paul, 38, grew up in Lewisville, North Carolina, about 10 miles outside Winston-Salem, and had been a standout player at West Forsyth High School. 

He was back to promote his book, Sixty-One: Life Lessons from Papa, On and Off the Court, about his late grandfather, Nathaniel Jones. He’d just been traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Golden State Warriors, and was excited for the change, he told a crowd of nearly 1,000. 

But in that 317-page tome, Paul’s enthusiasm is tinged with grief. 

Sports fans may pick it up to read about Paul’s exploits on the court. But the book is also an elegy for Jones, the proprietor of what was believed to be the first Black-owned service station in North Carolina. 

It’s not until the 19th chapter that Paul writes about the brutal tragedy of Jones’ death on November 15, 2002. 

Jones was 61 when he was attacked outside of his East Winston-Salem home. Police said he was beaten in the head and face and left to die of a cardiac arrhythmia; he was found lying face down in the carport near his Lincoln Town Car. His hands were tied behind his back with black tape, and his mouth was taped shut. His wallet was missing. 

Chris Paul waves to fans alongside his son and wife at a ceremony retiring Paul’s number at Wake Forest University. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

The title of the book comes from a game Paul played five days later, scoring 61 points in his grandfather’s honor. He intentionally missed a free throw to maintain his score. It was a moment that catapulted Paul into the national spotlight, landing him an interview on Good Morning America and an ESPN special at just 17. 

But only a sliver of the book is devoted to one of the most startling developments in Jones’ murder—the possibility that the five teenagers who were arrested and later convicted didn’t commit the crime. 

Rayshawn Banner was just 14 and his brother Nathaniel Cauthen was 15 when they were pulled into interview rooms at the Winston-Salem Police Department. Police also brought in three other 15-year-old boys: Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver, and Dorrell Brayboy. 

In 2004, Banner and Cauthen were convicted at trial of first-degree murder and sentenced to life. The next year, Bryant, Tolliver, and Brayboy were convicted of second-degree murder in a second trial and each given a prison sentence of at least 14 years. 

Bryant and Tolliver got out in 2017, and Brayboy was released in 2018. Banner and Cauthen are still serving a life sentence, with the possibility of parole after 25 years. 

All five said for nearly 20 years that they were innocent and that police coerced them into making false confessions. But it wasn’t until four years ago that a key witness recanted, throwing the case against them into question. 

Four of them—Brayboy was murdered in 2019 a year after his release from prison—filed claims with the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, which resulted in a hearing before an eight-member board in March 2020. The board sent the case to a three-judge panel, which upheld the convictions in April 2022. 

Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.

At both the 2020 and 2022 hearings, experts testified that the five Black teenagers were especially vulnerable to making false confessions, as they were young and had intellectual disabilities that would have made it difficult for them to assert their rights. 

One expert said this case had many similarities to what happened to five Hispanic and Black teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a white jogger in Central Park in 1989. In that case, the teenagers gave false confessions after enduring hours of police interrogation. They were exonerated after DNA evidence led to one man who confessed to the crime.

The three-judge panel’s decision cannot be directly appealed, but attorneys for the men plan to go a different route—filing an appeal in Forsyth Superior Court asking a judge to review their case, vacate their convictions, and possibly order a new trial. Banner filed his appeal in late April.

Until now, Paul has remained silent about the men’s innocence claims. In a short chapter near the book’s end, he says he believes they’re guilty, but is conflicted about the teenagers receiving lengthy prison sentences. 

But the book also makes errors: Paul calls the Innocence Inquiry Commission the “Innocence Project,” inaccurately says the commission reviewed the murder of Michael Jordan’s father, and claims—without any evidence in the record—that his grandfather was beaten with metal pipes. (Michael Wilbon, a former Washington Post sports reporter and current sports analyst for ESPN, co-wrote the book.)

Paul declined through his representatives an interview request from The Assembly, citing his busy schedule. An attempt to contact the book’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, about the book’s errors drew only this response: “Thank you for the information you provided. We are looking into the matters raised in your email in order to determine whether any changes in the book are warranted.” It doesn’t appear that any changes have been made since the book was released last month. 

The five teens charged in the death of Nathaniel Jones.

The tragic intersection of Paul and these five young men has had an enduring impact on all of them. 

Just before he was given a life sentence in 2004, Cauthen wiped tears from his eyes as he tried to persuade Judge W. Douglas Albright that he didn’t kill Jones. He turned to Paul’s family, telling them he was “sorry that this man lost his life, but I can’t tell you who killed this man.” 

“Everybody loves Chris Paul because they know him,” Cauthen said. “Nobody knows me.”

A Pivotal Night

With cameras rolling, Chris Paul signed to play for Wake Forest on November 14, 2002. He’d worked hard for that moment—and now all the frustration built during two tough years on the junior varsity team and the long hours of practice were worth it. 

The day was the culmination of all the lessons his grandfather imparted about faith and work ethic. 

That night, Paul writes, the two attended a Wake Forest game. He thought about getting his grandfather a new Wake Forest hat, maybe a Demon Deacons jersey. He thought about what would change when he was out on that court. 

“One thing that wouldn’t change, though, is that he’d have on the best church shoes his money could buy,” Paul writes in the book. “We worked so hard for all of this through all the AAU games, the JV drama, and the backyard battles with CJ [Paul’s older brother]. It all prepared me for this moment, and I was going to shine just like Papa’s shoes.” 

A family photo of the late Nathaniel Jones.

The next day, Jones was dead. 

The Winston-Salem police got to work piecing together what happened. 

Jones had talked earlier that day to a local handyman named Claude Walker about painting Jones’ house. Walker said he would come to the house between 6 and 6:30 p.m. to get a down payment. Jones told Walker to call when he arrived in Winston-Salem, and he would give Walker directions to the house. 

At 5:30 p.m. Jones and a nephew, Terrence Jones, closed the service station and made some stops before the elder Jones dropped Terrence off at his apartment building at 6:17 p.m. Jones likely arrived at home around 6:30. He typically called his daughter, Rhonda, at that time, but Rhonda said she never heard from him that night. Walker called Jones at 6:33 and 6:46, but Jones didn’t answer. 

Jones’ body was found an hour and a half later. Even though his wallet was missing, he still had $952.70 in cash in his pocket. Police also found $1,416 in a briefcase in the trunk of his car. 

Paul was at a high school football game when his brother called. “Mama said Papa is sick,” Paul recalled his brother telling him.

He started walking toward his car and ran into a cousin, Jeff Jones, who told him their grandfather had been murdered. 

Paul saw the police lights when he got to the house. 

“His body was just lying there facedown with a tarp over it,” Paul writes. His aunt Rhonda cursed at the crowd gathered in the streets, asking if anyone had seen who killed her father. “Y’all see everything else that happens around here, but you didn’t see this?!” she shouted. “Who the fuck did this?”

Five days later, the five teenagers were arrested and charged with first-degree murder. 

For most observers at the time, there was little question that they had committed the crime. Most commentary focused on how these teenagers had slipped through the cracks. 

A February 23, 2003, story in the Winston-Salem Journal put it this way: “Their young faces often flash in the minds of the police officers, ministers, and school social workers who came to know them, who prayed for them, and who tried to keep them out of trouble … The Jones case has been eye-opening to the people who had worked or were working with the teens and their families when he was killed.”

The Key Witness Changes Her Story

The five boys kept telling Winston-Salem police they didn’t kill Jones. 

The detectives kept telling the boys they didn’t believe them. 

The five teenagers hadn’t been suspects initially. Police had followed a number of leads, including a young boy who said he saw a Hispanic man run from Jones’ yard and jump two fences the night of Jones’ murder. 

But investigators began focusing on the boys after one of their mothers, Arlene Tolliver, called police and said her son, Jermal, had been acting strange. Police interviewed him on November 19, 2002. 

Soon, they interviewed the other four. 

The boys testified in pre-trial hearings that detectives alternately screamed at them and assured them they could go home if they just told the truth. Four of them said officers threatened the death penalty—which wouldn’t have been on the table because North Carolina eliminated it for juveniles in 1987. In the 2022 hearing, Bryant told the three-judge panel that one of the detectives pointed to a place on his arm and told him that’s where the needle for lethal injection would go. 

The crowd gathered outside Wait Chapel for Paul’s June book event. (Skyler Brown for The Assembly.)

“I was scared for my life,” Cauthen said at that same hearing. “I thought the police would do something to my life, if I didn’t admit to the crime. I felt my life was in danger.” 

Winston-Salem police didn’t say in their notes or reports that they had threatened the boys with the death penalty, but years later, detectives Sean Flynn and Stan Nieves admitted to commission staffers that they falsely told Bryant and Tolliver they could get the death penalty. An audio clip of Flynn’s interview with an Innocence Inquiry Commission staff attorney was played at the 2022 hearing. 

When the staff attorney asked why he mentioned the death penalty, Flynn said, “To elicit a response.” 

The attorney pressed Flynn. 

“A truthful response,” Flynn responded. 

In 2002, detectives also played audio clips of one teen’s statement to another to get them to confess. 

The teenagers each spent between five and eight hours at the police station. None of the teenagers had lawyers with them; Banner was the only one who signed a waiver to his right to an attorney. (The teenagers’ statements would not be admissible in court under current state law.)

The boys’ statements were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence. The boys didn’t agree on who participated in the beating, who served as lookouts, who unscrewed the lightbulbs in the carport, or whether the robbery was planned or spontaneous. 

They couldn’t even agree on what weapons they used. 

Chris Paul speaks at Wait Chapel in June. (Skyler Brown for The Assembly)

Banner told police Tolliver had some kind of gardening tool. Bryant and Tolliver said a baseball bat was used. Later in that same interview, Tolliver said no weapon was used, and an expert hired by defense ruled out the baseball bat as causing Jones’ injuries. 

And even though Paul writes that his grandfather was beaten with metal pipes, the five teenagers never mention using them in their statements to police. 

The boys told police they thought Jones was alive after the attack and never intended for him to die. But they were inconsistent on where they allegedly attacked Jones or where they left Jones’ body. Several said the attack happened near a white van or at the front door, even though all physical evidence indicates that Jones was attacked in the carport near his Lincoln Town Car. 

Banner told police that Jones’ body was left in the grass in the front yard. Brayboy said he heard on the news that a body was found in the ditch, and Bryant told police he saw Banner, Cauthen, and Brayboy drag Jones into a ditch. Police found Jones’ body in his carport. 

They also mentioned another man, known as Jed, being involved. Police interviewed him but did not file any criminal charges against him.  

Jessicah Black, a 16-year-old white girl from Davidson County, proved to be the key to the boys’ convictions at trial. She had befriended them weeks earlier and begun hanging out with them in their neighborhood. 

She was the only one who had a driver’s license, so she and the boys cruised around in her 1986 Mercury Cougar. 

She testified in two trials that she had heard them talk about robbing someone, and had driven them to the park near Jones’ house. She said she sat on a park bench, watched them go to Jones’ carport, and heard Jones scream for help. She also testified that she took the boys to a store, where they bought the black tape used to tie Jones up. The store, however, did not sell that kind of tape. 

In 2019, Black told former Houston Chronicle reporter Hunter Atkins, who covered Paul when he played for the Rockets, that her testimony all those years ago was a lie

She later testified both before the commission and the three-judge panel that Winston-Salem police had coerced her into making false statements, threatened to charge her, and claimed they had found Jones’ DNA that had allegedly come from the boys’ clothes in her car. Black was never criminally charged. 

“It seemed like it was easier to tell them what they wanted to hear so I could get out of there and go home,” she told the judges. 

In 2022, Forsyth County prosecutors accused Black of lying during her more recent testimony, and alleged that Atkins manipulated her into recanting. Prosecutors also alleged Atkins helped the men concoct wrongful-conviction claims to win exoneration in order to sue the city of Winston-Salem for $200 million. 

Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul (3) in the second half of Game 2 of an NBA second-round playoff series Monday, May 1, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Additionally, they pointed out that Atkins had made a car payment for Black, even though it was months after she talked to Atkins. Stephen Riley, the Chronicle’s former executive editor, told The Assembly that editors were aware Atkins was working on a story about the men’s wrongful-conviction claims but never knew of any kind of payment arrangement to a potential witness. Such an arrangement would have violated the paper’s policies, he said. 

Atkins left the Chronicle in February 2020; Riley declined to say why. Atkins was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old runaway girl, but charges were dropped after a grand jury declined to indict. He never published a story about the case and he now works as a communications consultant for a renewable energy company, according to his LinkedIn page. 

The only physical evidence used to tie the boys to the crime scene was a shoe impression lifted from the top of Jones’ car. But it wasn’t a definitive match to a shoe police seized from Banner, and the impression didn’t match any of the other shoes police seized from the teens. 

Police collected fingerprints and blood from the crime scene and tested the clothes the boys were wearing that night. None of it linked the boys to the crime scene. DNA on the black tape police seized also didn’t lead to the boys either. 

In closing arguments at the hearing last year, Bryant’s attorney Brad Bannon said it was inconceivable that teenagers would not have left a shred of physical evidence in such a brutal attack. 

“I’m told that it would be difficult for any teenagers to make a peanut butter sandwich without leaving any evidence,” Bannon said. “Yet, we are expected to believe that five teenagers with intellectual disability, sitting in a park and in a spur of a moment, go over and carry out this very personal and very bloody assault on Mr. Jones, tying his hands and taping his mouth, blood dripping from head wounds, and yet nothing from them is at the crime scene and nothing from the crime scene is on them.”

‘The Right People Were Convicted’

Many wondered if Paul would attend last year’s hearing. 

He didn’t. But his family did, often on the left side of the large courtroom, behind the prosecutors’ table. 

Paul and his family had been silent about the wrongful conviction claims. Speaking at the Innocence Inquiry Commission hearing in March 2020, his father, Charles Paul, didn’t talk about whether or not they believed the teenagers were guilty. He just said he wanted the commission to think about all the people Jones’ death affected.

“We’re standing strong, but we just wanted to let you all know that it always gets lost as Chris Paul’s grandfather, but this is my wife, this is my wife’s dad, and her sister’s, somebody that they loved very much,” he said.

At the April 2022 hearing, Chris’s mother, Robin, and her sister, Rhonda, took the stand and told the three-judge panel they believed Brayboy, Cauthen, Tolliver, Banner, and Bryant were all guilty. 

“The right people were convicted,” Robin Paul said. 

After an eight-day hearing, the judges upheld the conviction. 

But Allen Baddour, a superior court judge serving Chatham and Orange counties, said this: “There are aspects of this case that remain troubling and shine a bright light on the failings of our society and our justice system.”

Paul shares those concerns. ESPN columnist Rick Reilly wrote a 2011 column on an interview he had with Paul the previous year. In that interview, Paul said, “These guys were 14 and 15 years old [at the time], with a lot of life ahead of them. I wish I could talk to them and tell them, ‘I forgive you. Honestly.’ I hate to know that they’re going to be in jail for such a long time. I hate it.”

The crowd holds up their books at Paul’s event. (Skyler Brown for The Assembly)

He still hates it. “Obviously, I think jail is for some really damaged and cruel people, but I keep going back to how old those kids were, 14 and 15. Kids. My heart will never believe that sending someone that age for 50 years is a good idea,” Paul says in his book. 

Paul says he has concerns about racism and how the criminal justice system operates. 

“We send people to jail, almost guarantee they don’t get the resources that they need to be productive, and then they come home—which basically gives them the license, and almost dares them, to be reckless,” Paul writes. “Then we sit back and blame them for society’s failures.” 

But as the book makes clear—and despite the key witness changing her story—he still believes they are guilty. In one chapter, he expresses frustration that no one pointed out in the recent proceedings that one of the boys had used his grandfather’s credit card. It’s another factual error. 

Some of the boys had said in their statements that they had tried to use the credit cards at an ATM at Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, but police were never able to confirm it. The wallet was never found. 

The book is long, but that chapter is only six pages. It’s unclear the extent to which Paul has grappled with the idea that the boys might be innocent. He writes that he was glad when the three-judge panel upheld the convictions. 

“We finally feel closure and that justice was served,” he writes. 

Bannon told The Assembly he is not surprised that Paul and his family believe in the young men’s guilt; in fact, it’s understandable. Jones was one of Paul’s primary mentors growing up and having him taken away so violently must have had a traumatic impact on Paul’s life, he said. Over the past 20 years, Paul and his family likely have formed a belief that the young men are guilty based on information police detectives or prosecutors gave them, Bannon said.

“If you believe that a credit card of Mr. Jones was used by one of the teenagers, you didn’t get that from a public hearing because it’s not in one, because it’s not true,” he said. “It’s not a fact. You may have gotten it from the police because we know that the police lied to Jessicah Black and told her the same thing.”

For Paul, the pain of his grandfather’s death remains close to the surface. At Wait Chapel, between talking about how much he loves his family and his basketball career, his voice caught when it came to his grandfather. 

“What I’ve learned now and what I’m talking about in the book is that there wasn’t like a week and I was over it,” he said. “It’s not like a couple of years and I was over it. Even now, 20 years later, I’m still not over it.”

As the four men continue to fight their convictions in Jones’ death, it’s also clear that they’re not over it, either. 

Michael Hewlett is a staff reporter at The Assembly. He was previously the legal affairs reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal. You can reach him at