FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | From the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission | Lindsey Guice Smith, Executive Director
On April 18-28, 2022, Forsyth County held a three-judge panel hearing in the case of State v. Bryant, et. al., 02 CRS 38882, 38883, 38884, 38886, after the case was referred by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission (NCIIC). At the conclusion of the hearing, the three-judge panel ruled that Mr. Bryant, Mr. Cauthen, Mr. Tolliver, and Mr. Banner had not proven their innocence by clear and convincing evidence and relief was denied.
The case arises from the murder of Nathaniel Jones on November 15, 2002. Nathaniel Cauthen and Rayshawn Banner were convicted on August 19, 2004, of First-Degree Murder and Robbery with a Dangerous Weapon after a joint trial. Christopher Bryant and Jermal Tolliver were convicted on May 20, 2005, of Second-Degree Murder and Common Law Robbery after a joint trial.
NCIIC Executive Director Lindsey Guice Smith, presented the case in a hearing before the full Commission on March 9-13, 2020. The Commission’s lead investigator on this case was Staff Attorney Julie Bridenstine. After carefully considering the evidence, the Commission concluded by a vote of 5-3 that there was sufficient evidence of factual innocence to merit judicial review and referred the case to the three-judge panel. All materials considered by the Commission, along with a transcript of the Commission’s hearing can be found at https://innocencecommission-nc.gov/cases/state-v-bryant/.
While the three-judge panel was an adversarial process where the state was represented by the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office and the convicted persons were represented by defense counsel, the Commission process of investigation and Commission hearing prior to a three-judge panel is neutral and inquisitorial in its nature. The Commission does not, itself, seek any particular outcome in any case. Even at a Commission hearing, unlike the three-judge panel, Commissioners are only deciding whether a case should be heard by a three-judge panel, they are not deciding innocence. No party for either the defense or the prosecution is “represented” during the Commission’s process, and the convicted persons waive all of their rights and procedural safeguards. Commissioners represent all aspects of the criminal justice system, including a Superior Court judge, a district attorney, a defense attorney, a Victim advocate, a sheriff, a member of the public, and two discretionary members. These hallmarks maintain the Commission’s neutrality and ensure it remains an inquisitive process separate and apart from the adversarial process, allowing the Commission to focus on seeking the truth. It is this careful balance that has allowed North Carolina to be a leader in investigation of post-conviction claims of innocence.
In its history, the Commission has held 18 Commission hearings, representing less than 1% of the claims the Commission has received since its inception. Of those, 16 cases, involving 21 individual claimants, were referred to a three-judge panel hearing. Eight cases resulted in the exoneration of nine claimants after a three-judge panel hearing. Four cases, involving seven claimants, resulted in the denial of the claims by the three-judge panel (including State v. Bryant, et. al.). In two cases, three claimants entered Alford pleas for time served prior to the three-judge panel hearing.
Two cases are pending hearing before a three-judge panel. The case of State v. Merritt Williams, Forsyth County, is set to be heard the week of June 27, 2022. The case of State v. John Pritchard, Yancey County, is set to be heard the week of July 18, 2022.
Since it began operating in 2006, the Commission has reviewed and closed over 3,000 claims, confirming guilt through DNA testing in 10 cases.
For questions, please contact the Commission’s Executive Director, Lindsey Guice Smith, at 919-890-1580 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also find more information on the Commission’s website at www.innocencecommisson-nc.gov.