In recent years, Greenville, N.C., like many American cities, has added security cameras to its crime-fighting arsenal. The city, 85 miles east of Raleigh, installed its first electronic surveillance equipment in 2007. Today, 561 cameras watch the comings and goings of people and vehicles.
In the summer of 2009, when James Richardson was charged with murder, Greenville’s surveillance program was still young. With less than six dozen cameras, the city prioritized trouble spots, including downtown bars and clubs near East Carolina University. On June 30, just after 2 a.m., one of those cameras captured a car heading west on Fifth Street.
The silent footage of a white BMW on a dark street would have been unremarkable, except that someone in that car had just fired into a crowd outside a nightclub called The Other Place. Bullets struck two young men—Edgar Landon Blackley, an ECU senior, and Charles Andrew Kirby, the manager of a downtown pizza place. Both died of chest wounds.
Within hours, arrest warrants were issued for the man police said drove the BMW that night. His name was James Richardson. Witnesses said he’d played basketball.
In 2011, Richardson went on trial for his life. Pitt County District Attorney Clark Everett argued that he’d acted alone, stretching across the car from the driver’s seat and firing out the passenger window.
But three witnesses testified they saw more than one person in the car. They put the shooter in a passenger seat. Two said he was wearing sunglasses and a hat, and one thought the driver might have had dreadlocks. These descriptions didn’t match Richardson.
During closing arguments, Everett displayed an image of the BMW from the surveillance camera. The fuzzy picture revealed a white shirt on an unidentifiable driver.
“And how many people are in that vehicle? How many?” Everett asked jurors. “There’s no one else in there, folks. No one else.”
That was the moment that Tommy Moore, one of Richardson’s attorneys, recalls having a sinking feeling. “I really believe ultimately it was the most important piece of evidence,” he told The Assembly.
Deliberations stretched to four days, until a holdout juror changed his vote to guilty. With the conviction in hand, Everett announced he would no longer seek the death penalty. Richardson automatically got two life sentences without parole.
Afterward, James Richardson stood, offered condolences to the victims’ families and addressed the judge. “Being a parent myself, I can only imagine what the families are going through,” he said. “But what I’m trying to say is they’ve got the wrong guy. I’ve been saying that since day one. You got the wrong guy. You got the wrong guy.”
For the past 11 years, as Richardson has appealed his conviction, doubts about his guilt have multiplied. Two jurors say they were bullied into voting guilty. The sole witness who identified Richardson as the shooter has backpedaled. A man who could have identified other suspects was murdered shortly after the trial.
And in 2019, Richardson’s post-conviction lawyer found an SBI report that went unmentioned during the trial. It revealed that the fuzzy video the prosecution used was a lower-quality copy of the original. Everett, the DA, knew that. Jurors didn’t. Richardson’s lawyers say they didn’t either.
Richardson’s lawyer says the car held as many as four people, and Richardson wasn’t one of them.
James Earl Richardson tended to stand out in a crowd. He was 6-foot-7 inches tall, 215 pounds, and striking looking, a Black man with light skin, green eyes and a disarming smile.
Until his arrest, he’d been a Greenville guy who’d made good. The fifth of nine children, he’d grown up in Kearney Park, the city’s oldest public housing project. At J.H. Rose High, he was a basketball star. He went on to Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University, where he led the team in scoring for two seasons. Then he played in several European countries and for the Albany Patroons in an NBA developmental league.
In his early 30s, Richardson lived in Atlanta but made regular business and family visits to Greenville and Raleigh. He’d become a party promoter, using contacts in the NBA and NFL to throw parties that showcased players who attracted attendees. He had money. At bars, he enjoyed buying drinks for others, even strangers.
Early in the morning of June 30, 2009, he was buying drinks at The Other Place, a nightclub on Fifth Street known locally as The OP.
He’d begun the evening with his brother, Andre Richardson, and two friends at a nearby restaurant and bar called Dr. Unks. By the time they arrived at the nightclub it was late, around midnight. Richardson drove there in a white BMW he’d borrowed from a friend.
The place was packed. Patrons were drunk. Richardson was at the bar when a man bumped him, according to the trial transcript. In reporting this article, The Assembly reviewed thousands of pages of court documents and interviewed more than two dozen people, including witnesses and others involved in the case.
At the trial, Darren Kennedy, the ECU student who bumped Richardson, testified that Richardson nudged him and told him to stop. He said he apologized the first time, but the second time, he nudged Richardson back. Richardson poked him in the face, then he shoved Richardson and “we got into an altercation.”
Friends of both men began arguing. Bouncers ushered the parties out. At trial, prosecution witnesses portrayed Richardson as an arrogant hothead who flashed his money. One witness, a bartender who said she’d served Richardson often, testified that he was “pompous and a jerk and very rude to everybody.” Another said Richardson was throwing his hands up and refusing to leave.
Club co-owner Matt Blackman got involved, telling Richardson’s group they were permanently banned. Outside the club, smack-talking turned into a brawl.
Richardson got the worst of it. When someone pushed him, the situation became “kind of pandemonium,” one bouncer testified. Richardson’s friend LaToya Boyd, an ECU graduate student, testified that bouncers “came from everywhere” and “they all jumped in on him like they were a gang or something.” He fell and hit his forehead on the pavement.
Bleeding, Richardson extricated himself and left. The fighting stopped. Some witnesses said they saw Richardson and others in his group head to a parking area around the block. Some said they heard either Richardson or men around him making threats, warning that they’d be back.
Minutes later, a white BMW turned onto Fifth Street, toward the club, slowing as it approached. Someone fired at least five shots from a passenger window, then it sped off.
Blackley, a 21-year-old ECU senior from Oxford, N.C., was hit first. A bullet pierced his left chest and exited his back. Another bullet hit Kirby, 29, manager of a Michaelangelo’s Pizza restaurant. It ripped through his left arm, chest, and aorta.
Richardson had no criminal record, unlike some men around him that night. But he’d driven the BMW to the club, his gun had been in the trunk, and police later found the car near his mother’s house.
In less than seven hours, arrest warrants were signed. Four days later, Greenville police arrested Richardson and declared the case solved.
“We know we have the individual responsible in custody,” Police Chief William Anderson said at a press conference.
When the trial began 20 months later in March 2011, Everett, the prosecutor, argued a simple theory: Richardson, beaten up and kicked out of the nightclub, was so angry when he left that he returned and opened fire.
Police found Richardson’s fingerprints on the outside of the BMW and his DNA inside. But Richardson had driven the car for several days.
Gunshot residue, found on the interior handle of the front passenger door and the exterior right window support, suggested that a gun had been fired out the car’s front passenger side. If residue had been on the steering wheel, it would have bolstered Everett’s contention that the driver had also been the shooter. But there was no testimony about samples collected from the steering wheel.
A firearms expert found that bullets from the scene could have come from Richardson’s registered .45-caliber pistol. But even if it was the murder weapon, if someone else had used the car in the shooting, that person could have used the pistol. It was never recovered.
Five bullet casings were also found on the ground outside The OP. A sixth was found at the base of the car’s back window. Moore, Richardson’s lawyer, argued that if the car’s driver had fired out the passenger window, those casings should have fallen inside the car.
The physical evidence wasn’t conclusive. Eyewitness testimony, therefore, became critical.
No one disputed that Richardson was in a fight, and that an argument turned into a brawl. There was also agreement about what Richardson wore that night: a white T-shirt, basketball shorts, socks, and flip-flops. This casual attire stood out in a club that usually enforced a dress code.
From that point forward, however, witness accounts conflicted.
One eyewitness for the state, Rachel Burke, said she’d seen a tall man wearing a white shirt and “baller” shorts tussling with bouncers, falling in the street “and saying something as far as like, ‘I’ll be back.’” She testified that after she left the scene and climbed into her parked truck, she looked into her driver’s side mirror and saw a man in a white shirt reach into the trunk of a white BMW and retrieve a gun. “And I actually seen him cock it back and get back into the vehicle and go the opposite way. And that’s when I called 911.”
Burke said she’d had between four and six liquor drinks that night and agreed she was “on the tipsy side.” When she was asked to look at a photo lineup and pick the man involved in the fight, she chose another man, not Richardson.
Jeff Sealey, Andrew Kirby’s friend and roommate, also testified he’d seen a man open the BMW driver’s side door, pop the trunk, pull out a pistol, and cock it. He said it was Richardson.
Sealey had met Richardson at Dr. Unks earlier that evening. Richardson had bought him a shot. Sealey testified that when he left The OP after the fight, he’d been walking behind Richardson and two other men when he saw Richardson get into the BMW. “He did use the words, ‘Fuck this shit,’ and jump back into his car and put it in reverse and drove the wrong way down the street and then turned right onto Fifth Street,” Sealey testified, “and that’s when I started running. Seconds later I heard multiple gunshots.”
Sealey testified that he saw Richardson’s photo on a local television website, and “there was no doubt in my mind when I saw that picture, you know.”
But Sealey said the Black man he saw wore long, dark pants—not basketball shorts. He’d told police that the man had moderate-dark to dark skin, then, in a pre-trial hearing, agreed that Richardson was light-skinned.
Only one person identified Richardson as the shooter: Vidal Thorpe, a witness who prosecutors found less than two weeks before the trial. Thorpe testified that in the 20 months since the murders, he’d told no one he saw the shooter until an investigator contacted him. “I thought they had enough witnesses that they didn’t need me,” he said.
Thorpe, a personal fitness trainer in Greenville, also coached a soccer team that included the child of Kimberly Robb, an assistant district attorney. Under Robb’s questioning at trial, Thorpe testified he’d been inside the club, but after he heard gunshots, he exited to look for his friend Jacob Glowacki, one of the club’s bouncers.
Once outside, he “saw the white BMW driving by, the defendant’s arm in the window, coming out the passenger side.”
He knew it was Richardson, he said, because he wore a white shirt or jacket. He’d played basketball with Richardson before, he said, and he recognized the side of Richardson’s face as the car drove away. He said Richardson was in the passenger’s seat and there appeared to be two people in the car. He also said he’d only had one drink that night.
“Vidal, is there any doubt in your mind the person you saw in the BMW shooting at the OP was the defendant?” Robb asked.
“No,” Thorpe told her, “there is no doubt in my mind.”
Few people who witnessed the shootings that night would have been closer to the BMW than defense witnesses Nicholas Golden and Brian Richards.
The two friends were outside the club when the shooting started. Golden described to jurors watching Kirby fall to the sidewalk a few feet away from him. Then he saw the BMW. A Black man was hanging out the front passenger window up to his rib cage. After he shot Kirby, “the shooter pulled himself and the gun back in,” Golden said. “He was wearing a black and red baseball cap and sunglasses. And I looked him dead in the face, but I have no clue who he is.”
Golden testified there were at least two people in the car, maybe three. He thought the shooter wore a black shirt, though when he replayed the scene in his mind the shirt was sometimes a different color. He testified he was seven to 10 feet from the car, and that the driver might have had dreadlocks.
Richards, an East Carolina student, had been next to Golden. He gave similar testimony, though he recalled the shooter in the back passenger seat. The shooter’s skin was dark. He wore a black shirt and hat with red on it. His arm was out the window. He might have been wearing sunglasses, Richards said, but “that is probably what I’m least sure about.”
Golden had arrived at the club around 1:30 a.m., following a production shift at Greenville’s Daily Reflector newspaper. He’d had two cups of draft beer. Richards testified he’d had between five and eight beers, and that he went back inside the club after the shooting, got a piece of paper from the bartender and wrote down what he saw. He gave the paper to one of the first officers on the scene.
A few hours later, both men wrote statements for the police. Neither looked at a lineup.
“What I said didn’t match,” Golden, now a Ph.D. student in Greensboro, said in a recent interview. Police “wanted me to back up what everybody else had said.”
The surveillance video of the white BMW made two appearances during the trial.
First, Greenville Police Corporal John Jenkins testified that he’d retrieved the video from the surveillance camera system and put it on a CD, which became Exhibit 33.
The CD also contained still pictures “which are the individual frames from that video,” he testified. He didn’t say how many, and no one asked.
On a video monitor, jurors watched a black SUV roll down Fifth Street, followed by a white car, which was visible for about 12 seconds. At Everett’s request, the video was played a second time.
Then, during closing arguments, Everett played the video several more times. He said the lone figure in the driver’s seat was light skinned and wearing a white shirt. He pointed out what he said was an air freshener hanging from the mirror. “You can look,” he told jurors. “There’s nothing else in there.”
Cutler, Richardson’s lawyer, challenged that contention. He recalled the eyewitnesses who’d seen two or more people in the car. He also directed jurors’ attention to a black car driving ahead of the white BMW in the video. In that vehicle, no one was visible. Poor lighting and poor video quality made it impossible to see whoever was inside, he said.
Cutler argued that Greenville police had rushed to judgment because Richardson “was the only person anybody could identify.” He became their focus because he was in a fight, Cutler said, not because they saw Richardson shooting the gun.
Jury deliberations stretched over four days. The first day’s vote: 9-3 to convict. The group’s one Hispanic juror and its two Black jurors, a man and a woman, voted no.
On the third afternoon, with one Black juror holding out, the foreperson sent the judge a note saying that the holdout had asked to be removed “because he is unable to make a decision.” The juror, Lamuel Anderson, was a prison guard and former police officer.
After receiving the note, Judge Duke called the jury into the courtroom and told the group, in part, that no one “should surrender an honest conviction as to the weight or effect of the evidence solely because of the opinion of your fellow jurors, or for the mere purpose of returning a verdict.”
But he added: “I must emphasize the fact that it is your duty to reach a verdict on all of the charges.” He went on: “I have already instructed you that your verdicts must be unanimous. That is, each of you must agree on the verdicts.”
Anderson switched his vote the next afternoon.
In an interview, Anderson said he was unpersuaded by the conflicting evidence, including Everett’s images. “I couldn’t really tell what I was looking at. It was blurry,” he told The Assembly recently. But he felt bullied by other jurors, and after the judge directed the group to reach a verdict, it seemed that they’d be stuck in the room until he changed his vote. “I have regrets that I didn’t take my stand,” he said.
Another juror who initially voted “no” told The Assembly that she also was bullied to change her vote. The juror, who didn’t want her name published because she fears retaliation, said she was shocked that most jurors were ready to vote guilty as soon as they entered the jury room to deliberate.
Both this juror and Anderson said they thought Judge Duke would require the group to keep deliberating until everyone agreed.
The female juror remembered “a lot of contradiction” in the testimony and felt “something was not fitting.” “I believe he’s not innocent of everything, but I don’t believe he pulled the trigger,” she said.
“I felt like I failed,” she said. “Because I had doubts. I felt like I just was not doing the right thing.”
In 2019, on the day that Heather Rattelade, Richardson’s post-conviction attorney, found what she calls “the smoking gun,” the Raleigh lawyer was doing what she always does when she takes a post-conviction case—combing through the state’s files.
Richardson was incarcerated in Roanoke River Correctional Institution, a state prison in Halifax County, about an hour north of Greenville. His appeals had been unsuccessful. They’d argued, among other things, that his trial counsel had been ineffective and that the judge had erred when he excluded testimony from an expert on eyewitness identifications.
Now, as Rattelade worked on a new appeal, she searched for false or misleading evidence, as well as exculpatory evidence that police or prosecutors didn’t share with defense attorneys.
Rattelade recalled that she was making her way through thousands of documents when she discovered something she hadn’t seen in defense files—a State Bureau of Investigation lab report and communication log.
The SBI report said the surveillance video Everett had shown jurors wasn’t in its original format and that it had “compression artifacts,” digital noise that reduces image quality. Police no longer had the original video. The communication log revealed that an SBI analyst had explained this to Everett.
Log entries outline what happened: About a month before trial, Connie Elks, the lead detective, gave the crime lab a DVD containing both the video and 373 JPG photos shot by the surveillance camera at Fifth and Greene streets. Everett told the lab that he wanted to “show the video frame by frame” and “he would like the subject in the white car enhanced when he reaches the street light.”
Jim Trevillian was the SBI forensic analyst assigned the task. He telephoned Everett and said he was seeing compression artifacts.
The SBI report doesn’t explain how the lower-quality video was created and Trevillian, now retired, declined to talk with The Assembly. He said he couldn’t answer questions without his notes and turned down The Assembly’s offer to provide him the report with the communication log so he could review them. “I’m retired,” he said.
So The Assembly contacted a video forensics expert, Bryan Neumeister, who has testified about digital forensics in high-profile trials. He said that a video with compression artifacts may look pixelated, especially if it’s taken at night.
Neumeister also offered a theory that might explain what happened to the video. The quality of surveillance camera footage can be compromised if police don’t follow correct extraction procedures, he said. Instead of removing the hard drive to do a forensic extraction, “they just plug into the back of the DVR and export the video.”
This happens often enough that he includes a tutorial on proper DVR extraction procedures on his company’s website. He said he’s seen videos thrown out of court because they weren’t extracted correctly. “The exported video is a different video,” he said. “It doesn’t always represent what actually happened.”
The surveillance camera had also recorded those 373 JPG photos, however. These captured the same 76 seconds as the video. Most showed an empty Fifth Street at around 2:07 a.m., but about 70 included all or part of the BMW. In a few images, the car’s driver is partially visible.
According to the SBI report, Trevillian told Everett he wouldn’t be able to pull frames from the video that would be of “comparable quality” to the JPG images.
Four days before the trial began, Everett visited the forensic lab in Raleigh. Trevillian showed the district attorney a side-by-side comparison of the video and JPG photos of the same scene. Everett “could see the quality difference,” the communication log says.
But instead of asking Trevillian to enhance the higher-quality JPG images of the BMW, Everett requested stills from the lower-quality video. The forensic analyst pulled six images that focus on the white BMW. “Due to the item submitted not being an original recording,” the report says, “the examination yielded limited results.”
Cutler and Moore, Richardson’s trial attorneys, say in affidavits that they never received this SBI report or communication log. If they had, they said they would have challenged the video and called for a mistrial. Cutler wrote that he believes the distorted video and images “ultimately led to Mr. Richardson’s wrongful conviction.” Cutler doesn’t remember having the JPG images, but Rattelade says Richardson’s team had those images.
Rattelade, who is representing Richardson pro bono, has requested state funds to hire a forensic expert to examine and enhance the JPGs. She has also used Adobe Photoshop to enhance several frames herself. The result shows fuzzy images in the front passenger and middle back seat. Also, there’s a dark image outside the rear passenger window.
Rattelade says these images show as many as three people in the car in addition to the driver.
In September 2021, Rattelade filed a motion for appropriate relief. Unlike appeals that allege trial errors or violations of a defendant’s due process, a motion for appropriate relief can also present new evidence.
Rattelade argues that prosecutors withheld the SBI report and more than 40 other pieces of evidence favorable to the defense, including at least five additional surveillance videos. A jury that heard this new evidence would likely come to a different verdict, she argues.
She also alleges that Everett purposely used the poorer quality images from the video to “create the false impression that only one person, the driver, was in the white BMW.”
Everett is now in private practice. He retired as DA in 2013 and subsequently won the N.C. Bar Association’s Peter Gilchrist Award, which honors a prosecutor who exemplifies the profession’s highest ideals.
In a telephone interview, he said it was “absolutely not true” that he used poorer quality images to create the impression of a single person in the car. He also denied that he suppressed the SBI report, additional surveillance videos and other evidence.
Everett points to his handwritten note on the SBI report, which he didn’t receive until the trial began. It says “Shown to Jeff Cutler.”
“We turned over to the defense what we had,” he said. Everett acknowledged, however, that he knew the video wasn’t the original. “I would have loved to have had a clearer image,” he said. “I don’t remember seeing anything better than what we showed in court.”
But if Everett wanted clearer images, why did he request stills from the lower-quality video? Why didn’t he ask Trevillian to enhance the higher-quality JPGs?
“I don’t remember that conversation well enough to tell you,” he said.
So what, exactly, did Everett show jurors?
Exhibit 33 includes a CD with both the video and the 373 JPG images. It also includes 14 prints from the JPG images that were made available to jurors during their deliberations. It doesn’t include the images Everett asked Trevillian to pull from the video.
The trial transcript shows that Everett played the video for jurors at least five times. As he was showing it, he referenced “still shots” and described details he claimed to see, such as the driver’s light skin.
While the prosecution presented testimony from firearms, fingerprint, and gunshot residue experts, no expert verified anything about the video, including details Everett described to the jury. He didn’t identify the “still shots” he was describing. Was he showing one of the JPGs? Or had he simply paused the video? Everett said he thought he showed individual pictures, but doesn’t know for sure.
Rattelade argues that if jurors had seen the JPG images on the video monitor, “it would have been plain as day there were multiple people in the car.”
A dark form outside the back right passenger window appears in several frames, and changes shape from image to image. Rattelade believes the changes reflect movement—a man sticking his head and upper torso out the window, then pulling back.
Before she filed Richardson’s motion, Rattelade shared with Everett several JPG photos she enhanced. He questions whether they show multiple people. “I have no idea, what Heather showed me, how she got that, what she did to it. I have no idea,” he said.
Neumeister, the video forensic expert, agreed to briefly examine several JPGs of the BMW for The Assembly. He said he could neither rule out nor confirm there were others in the car. It’s possible the fuzzy shapes are people. It’s also possible they are reflections or compression artifacts, he said.
Richardson’s motion also charges that Vidal Thorpe’s testimony is a lie. Thorpe, the only person who identified Richardson as the shooter, testified at trial that there was “no doubt” in his mind that he saw Richardson holding a gun out the BMW passenger window after the shootings.
But when an investigator for Richardson interviewed Thorpe again in 2017, he backpedaled. Asked if he recalled testifying, Thorpe replied: “I don’t even know why they had me to testify in that.”
Asked what he saw the night of the murders, Thorpe said he remembered “the arm come out, the gun shooting. You know, that’s what I saw.” In this telling, he didn’t say he saw Richardson’s face.
He said the shooter’s arm came from the back passenger window and there were three or four people in the car. Previously, he’d said the arm came out the front passenger window and he saw two people in the car.
“So you couldn’t see who was shooting? They just had you there because you saw the shooting?” the investigator asked.
“Yeah,” Thorpe said, “the judge gave me the run around. And it’s just, I was just, I told you what I—what I saw.”
Thorpe didn’t explain what he meant when he said the judge gave him the runaround, and the investigator didn’t ask. I left voicemail messages for Thorpe and sent a letter to his business address in Greenville requesting an interview, but got no response.
Police had a witness who contradicted a key part of Thorpe’s story. Thorpe said that when he heard shots fired he went outside to look for Glowacki, one of the bouncers. He spotted him, got Glowacki back inside the club, and that’s when he saw Richardson’s face as the car was driving away.
But Glowacki told Elks, the detective, that he’d been standing at the club’s doorstep when he heard gunfire. He ran inside “and I jumped behind the bar,” he said in a January 2011 interview. He didn’t mention Thorpe.
Neither the prosecution nor defense called Glowacki to testify.
Until now, Richardson had told few people what happened the night of the shootings. He wanted to testify at trial, he told The Assembly, but his attorneys advised him not to. Cutler and Moore, his attorneys, say the decision was ultimately his.
In a four-hour interview in March, Richardson gave his side of the story. I met with him and Rattelade in a visitation room in the Roanoke River Correctional Institution in Halifax County. Richardson, now 45, works in the kitchen. Prison officials say he’s a model inmate.
Richardson says he can’t answer the case’s most important question. He says he doesn’t know who was in the BMW. He just knows it wasn’t him.
His story begins a few days before the shootings, when he got a ride with a friend from Atlanta to Charlotte. Richardson didn’t own a car and had planned to rent one in Charlotte to go to Raleigh. Instead, a Charlotte friend loaned him a white 1993 BMW.
Once in Raleigh, he checked into the Renaissance Hotel at North Hills Mall. He was planning several parties, he said.
He also had a new love. Two months earlier, he’d met Hibah Elawad, who lived outside Washington, D.C. She joined him in Raleigh for the weekend and flew out Monday morning. They ate at Firebirds one night, at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse another. They went to see a movie, The Hangover.
On Sunday, June 29, 2009, Richardson got a call from Juhahn Belcher, a close childhood friend who lived outside Atlanta. Belcher, who’d served time for dealing marijuana and cocaine, asked Richardson if he could give a ride to someone who had business in Greenville, about 90 minutes away. Richardson agreed.
The next afternoon, two men arrived outside his hotel. He’d previously met one, called G, at an Atlanta restaurant. He doesn’t remember the other’s name.
The men put their bags in Richardson’s car trunk, which contained the registered gun Richardson kept for protection.
Once in Greenville, Richardson had the men drop him off at the home of his friend Dearl Powell while they took the BMW to complete their business. “I don’t know what exactly they had to do, but it’s something I didn’t want to be part of,” he said.
During Richardson’s trial, Powell corroborated this part of Richardson’s account, testifying that he believed the two men who dropped off Richardson “had something to do with this” because “James ain’t never showed a sign of he was ever capable of doing something. He never got in a fight, for God’s sake.”
After the men left in the BMW, Richardson hung out with Powell, then borrowed Powell’s bronze Cadillac to meet his brother Andre and friends at Dr. Unks. The Atlanta men also appeared at Dr. Unks. They told Richardson they needed a different car to finish their business, so he handed over the key to the Cadillac.
Around midnight, Richardson’s group decided to go to The OP. He wasn’t dressed for a club, but he reluctantly agreed. With the Cadillac in use, he took the BMW.
Richardson hadn’t been at The OP long when the Atlanta men returned. One gave the Cadillac key to him. He dropped it in his sock because his shorts had no pockets.
Richardson’s account of what happened next—Kennedy bumping him at the bar, words exchanged, bouncers intervening—generally tracks with trial testimony.
When bouncers demanded both groups leave, Richardson argued that he’d done nothing wrong. But as tempers rose, “I say, ‘Forget it, let’s leave.’” When he exited, he held only a phone. His BMW keys were on the bar.
Outside, the brawl erupted, with bouncers focused on Richardson and his group. “You got 50 or something people against like, 10,” he said. He threw no punches. He dropped the phone. When he got free, “I just left.”
He was alone when he headed toward parking spaces on Reade Street, he said. He wasn’t thinking about his next move. He didn’t notice if the BMW was there, and he heard no gunfire. “I was just walking, ” he said. Then he felt the key in his sock, and he remembered the Cadillac.
He drove it back to Powell’s house, parked, knocked on Powell’s door, and returned the key. At trial, Powell corroborated this. He’d testified that Richardson’s face looked “scuffed up” and he had blood on his shirt and arm.
Richardson had flagged down a cab driver named Little Rob, who drove him to his mom’s house. His brother Andre and friends eventually reunited with him there. They headed to Raleigh to spend the night.
Hours later, acting on a tip, police found the BMW parked near his mother’s house. Richardson said it wasn’t there when he was there. At trial, his friend LaToya Boyd also said she didn’t see the car when she and others arrived to pick Richardson up.
Rattelade suspects whoever parked the BMW there also called police and tipped them off. Richardson’s suitcase, suit, and various documents were inside.
After the shooting, Richardson headed to the D.C. area to visit Elawad. During the trial, Assistant District Attorney Robb noted this rendezvous: Richardson was partying while two families were burying their sons.
His behavior did look suspicious. He not only left town; he left behind the borrowed car with his belongings inside. Once he reunited with Elawad, however, he didn’t behave so much like a man on the lam, but as a man making no effort to hide.
He told Elawad he’d gotten into a fight but didn’t elaborate; she suspected the incident had hurt his pride. He didn’t mention a shooting, she said, and he seemed normal, not anxious or frightened. “If I had shot up a club, I would be hiding,” she said. “I wouldn’t be going to five-star restaurants.”
By then, Richardson had made the first of several calls to a friend, Greenville police detective Sean Moore. Moore testified: “He asked me what was going on, and I said, you know, I don’t understand it. I don’t know the whole situation. I think you just need to come down and talk to, you know, the detectives and you need to turn yourself in.”
Richardson told Moore he’d return to Greenville on July 4, and he kept his word. Moore placed him under arrest in front of a crowd in his old Kearney Park neighborhood.
Richardson’s motion points to other possible suspects who police chose not to pursue—men involved in the nightclub altercation who matched descriptions of the man who got into the BMW.
Richardson’s brother, Andre, for instance, was wearing a white shirt and jeans that evening, and his skin was darker than Richardson’s. Another man, D.J. Godley, was described as wearing a white polo shirt and yelling threats to bouncers following the fight. Their clothing matched two prosecution witness descriptions of the man who got into the BMW.
There has long been talk in Greenville that police arrested the wrong person. In an interview, Everett acknowledged he knew before trial about the contention that men from Atlanta were involved. He said he asked community leaders questioning Richardson’s guilt to tell him who did the shooting if not Richardson, and he could never get a name.
Richardson won’t speculate about possible suspects. He says he doesn’t know.
But an affidavit that Richardson’s brother Andre signed in 2014, five years after the murders, lends weight to the theory that others were involved. Andre said he’s the one who grabbed the BMW keys from the bar as bouncers herded Richardson’s group out of the nightclub.
On his way out, he said one of the Atlanta men, who he understood to be named “B,” asked for the keys. Andre handed them over. When he got to the parking area, he saw that the BMW was gone. He also saw his brother get into a Cadillac “that looked like the car that belonged to Dearl Powell.”
Andre said in the affidavit that he talked to investigators working on his brother’s defense before the trial, but “I was scared, so I did not tell them what I knew.”
In a recent interview, Andre said he was worried if he talked, he could be a target. “I was afraid for my life. I was afraid for my family’s life.” I asked Andre if he was still afraid. He responded: “All I care about—I just want my brother to be free.”
One person who likely could have identified the Atlanta men was Juhahn Belcher. According to Richardson, it was Belcher who’d asked him to give the men a ride.
About six weeks after Richardson was convicted, Belcher was found dead in his home, south of Atlanta. He’d been shot in the head, according to news reports.
The case remains unsolved. Dearl Powell theorizes that Belcher “didn’t take it well” when the Greenville nightclub murders were pinned on Richardson, his lifelong friend. “The word was he was going to talk,” Powell said in an interview. “That’s why he got killed.”
The Other Place nightclub murders were big news in Greenville, and online stories about Richardson’s arrest drew hundreds of furious comments. People called him a thug, an evil man, a piece of trash. Some commenters argued he should be executed without a trial. Some made racist remarks. Every time you hear about a shooting, “you can be sure its a black man,” one commenter wrote.
But Richardson had no criminal record and no history of violence. Friends and family were shocked. The Rev. Carnell Burney, who coached Richardson for years in Greenville’s parks and recreation and public-housing basketball leagues, couldn’t believe it. He’d remained close to Richardson, who often helped him with basketball camps when he returned home.
“Anything I needed him to do, he would volunteer. He wanted to give back to the community. He was real good with kids,” said Burney, who’s recreation supervisor for Pitt County schools. His first thought when he heard Richardson was wanted for murder was that police had the wrong man. “I still don’t believe it,” he said.
Local justice activists were also skeptical. Don Cavellini, co-chair of the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism, said he’s talked to no one who believes Richardson got a fair trial. “There’s a pattern and practice of deep and profound corruption in the law enforcement here in Pitt County,” Cavellini said.
As proof, Cavellini and others point to the wrongful conviction of Dontae Sharpe, who spent 25 years in prison for a 1994 murder that he didn’t commit.
The state had evidence absolving Sharpe of the crime before he was ever charged, according to Duke University’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represented him. The state’s case relied on testimony from a 15-year-old girl who said Sharpe shot the victim while they were arguing in the street. But an autopsy showed the bullet that killed the victim entered through the side of his left arm, not the front of his body. He was found in the driver’s seat of his pickup truck.
Gov. Roy Cooper granted Sharpe a pardon of innocence last year, declaring him innocent of the murder charge.
Clark Everett prosecuted that case. The girl recanted weeks after the trial, but Judge Duke, who also presided in Richardson’s case, ruled her recantation, not her original testimony, was false, and later dismissed Sharpe’s motion for appropriate relief without holding an evidentiary hearing.
Duke, now retired, also dismissed Richardson’s first motion for appropriate relief without a hearing.
Richardson’s second motion for appropriate relief, filed in September, awaits a response from Pitt County District Attorney Faris Dixon. He declined comment because the case is ongoing.
Dixon pledged during his 2018 election campaign to increase public trust by establishing a conviction integrity unit in the DA’s office to review closed cases. That hasn’t happened. When I asked why, his administrative assistant emailed a statement saying that N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby’s focus “is to reduce the state backlog of criminal matters and he has tasked Prosecutorial offices throughout North Carolina with disposing of current pending matters expeditiously.”
Perhaps no one remains more certain of James Richardson’s innocence than Hibah Elawad, now his fiancée. Elawad, a financial project manager, never questioned his innocence “because of the person I knew him to be,” she said. She told Richardson early on that she was determined to find out the truth.
After spending more than a decade studying the case, Elawad has facts at her fingertips. When I texted recently to ask where police got the tip about the BMW’s location, she replied: “Try Transcript Page 2376.” The more she investigated the case, she said, “the more I realized how distant he was from the shooting.”
Elawad has organized a Free James Richardson campaign, and in March, about 20 people met at a Greenville church to discuss strategies. Attendees included leaders from Pitt County’s NAACP and the Coalition Against Racism.
Also attending were friends and family members, including 21-year-old James Richardson Jr., one of Richardson’s three children. Incarceration often fractures family relationships, but James Junior said he and his father talk on the phone daily. “I was already close to my dad when I was young. But when he was incarcerated, it made us even closer,” James Junior told me. “We really tight.”
Downtown Greenville looks different today than it did the night of the shootings. Bars and restaurants have come and gone. A burger joint replaced Dr. Unks. The building that once housed The Other Place became home to East Carolina University offices.
But Andrew Kirby, who was 29, never turned 30. Landon Blackley, who’d just finished an ECU summer school class and lined up a roommate for the fall, never started his senior year.
I tried to contact members of the Kirby and Blackley families, but got no response. Miranda Hairston Dunn, however, agreed to talk. She was a close friend of Kirby’s, known to his friends as Drew. She’s administrator of the Charles Andrew Kirby Memorial Group on Facebook, which has more than 400 members.
“He was one of the best people that I ever knew,” she said, her voice breaking. “He’s the guy who’d give you the shirt off his back.” As a restaurant manager, Kirby greeted customers by name and treated employees with respect. “Everyone loved him.”
Dunn didn’t attend the trial, but her understanding was that police had photos of Richardson in the BMW and that eyewitnesses had identified him. She assumed he was guilty.
I shared with her some allegations in Rattelade’s motion and described evidence suggesting there were multiple people in the car. I told her that Thorpe, the only person who identified Richardson as the shooter, didn’t confirm that identification in 2017 when Richardson’s investigator specifically asked him about it.
Dunn listened. She didn’t speculate about Richardson’s guilt or innocence, but said, “We need the right person behind bars. There needs to be justice for Drew and Landon. I would hate that, if James had nothing to do with it.”
Everett maintains that he prosecuted the right man, that James Richardson, wearing a white shirt, was sitting in the driver’s seat. If Richardson was driving, it doesn’t matter if someone else was the shooter. He would still be culpable for first-degree murder because he was acting in concert with the shooter.
But what if Richardson is telling the truth, and the descriptions that Brian Richards and Nicholas Golden gave police were correct? They saw a man with a gun who wore a hat and sunglasses. He was leaning out one of the passenger windows.
In a recent interview, Golden told me that after he testified in 2011, he tried to put the night of the shootings out of his mind. But he had looked right into the shooter’s face, and he couldn’t forget what he saw.
“The person definitely smiled, then leaned back into the car,” Golden said. “What I remembered was the person smiled.”
Pam Kelley, a Charlotte journalist, is the author of Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South.