James Jordan Sr.’s body was found on August 3, 1993, tangled in the floating limbs of two trees that straddled Gum Swamp near Bennettsville, South Carolina. The winding creek on the border of the Carolinas was a favorite for local fishermen in search of perch and catfish. One such man on that day instead smelled, then saw, a curled lump of a body laying face down in the water.
It had decomposed so much that when the authorities eventually scooped up the body and turned it over, there was no discernible face to greet them. The discoloration was so severe that it was impossible to even make out the man’s race. An autopsy still found the culprit: a bullet, lodged in his chest, no exit wound. But it would take 10 more days and a flash of happenstance for anyone to understand who this John Doe was.
Three days later, the county’s coroner, Tim Brown, saw a nightly news report of Jordan being reported missing since July 22nd. It included images of his red Lexus, found stripped and vandalized in the North Carolina woods not far from Gum Swamp. He wondered whether the body could be the match. Police rushed to secure Jordan’s dental records to compare to the forensic analysis of Doe. Incredibly, Brown’s suspicion proved correct.
And just like that, the storyboard began to come together. Dozens of calls made on the Lexus’ car phone led authorities to Larry Demery and Daniel Green, just 17 and 18 years old. Both had recently been caught for small-time robberies. In sworn testimony, Demery alleged that he and Green had come up on a sleeping Jordan, pulled over on the side of the highway in his Lexus. Prosecutors claimed Jordan was tired while driving home from a friend’s funeral in Wilmington, North Carolina, a three-and-a-half-hour drive by car. The plan, according to Demery, was to tie the driver up and take the car. Instead, he said, Green shot the man as he startled awake. The two drove the body to Pea Bridge and tossed Jordan into the rippling gray water, just a few hundred yards upstream of where the body was found.
This is the series of events that most understand as the saga of Jordan’s death, and the one that has endured for over 25 years: the tragic tale of two wayward boys, seduced by the riches and notoriety that can result from wanton violence, running into the mentor and father of the greatest athlete on earth.
It is the story recounted in the smash hit documentary The Last Dance, in which we see how profoundly his father’s death impacted Michael Jordan’s life and career. It is no coincidence that MJ announced his first retirement from the NBA after the murder; even when he returned for his second three-peat championship run, the ghost of James touched every minute he spent on the hardwood. “I think about him every day. I’m pretty sure I always will. Every day of my life,” an emotional Jordan said in March 1996.
MJ never got over the loss. But neither did Green, who has maintained his innocence from the first moments he heard Demery’s claim that the older boy pulled the trigger of a .38 pistol at point-blank range, taking James Jordan’s life in cold blood. Demery pled guilty in 1995 and agreed to testify against Green, and the bulk of the state’s case against the duo was built on the former’s word, says Christine Mumma, executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence.
“What we see in a lot of these cases is a defendant never had a chance to tell their story. Daniel never testified,” Mumma tells me. “Daniel’s statements were never used.”
Both Demery and Green were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, and both are still in custody today, with chances at parole in coming years. But for the last two decades, Green has been battling to get his story heard in court. He doesn’t dispute that he stood next to Demery on that tiny bridge, staring at the cold water eddying below while holding Jordan’s body. But he says he never pulled the trigger. In fact, he says he has no idea how Jordan actually got killed at all. Green merely thought Demery had defended himself in a drug deal gone wrong.
“I guess (it was) maybe the mentality of saying, ‘Okay, this is my dude. I’m a real man. Like, I’m a real man because my friend needed me and I was there for my friend,’” he said in 2018.
Green approached Mumma’s office in 2008, but it was easy to reject him — “We do not typically take on a case where someone already has counsel, so we wrote him to say that and wished him luck,” she tells me. Two years later, she represented Greg Taylor, a man who was convicted of beating a girl to death in 1993. The case hinged on shaky blood evidence, and Mumma helped exonerate Taylor after his legal team discovered glaring procedural problems with the state lab’s processing of said evidence. In the aftermath, Green reached out to her again, hoping her experience investigating blood evidence could help in his case.
The parallels were obvious, Mumma says, and she joined the case in 2015. It didn’t take long for her to understand the magnitude of the challenge Green faced. To try and secure a retrial is to be forced to recreate the crime, again and again, until the motives and alibis and object evidence align with a different but equally credible truth. In doing so, Mumma and her team have tripped into the same red flags that have been there the whole time: evidence that doesn’t match the prosecution’s tale, holes in procedure and signs that the conviction was a rush job under the mounting pressure of the public eye.
The first problem, she tells me today, is the first thing she noticed five years ago: How could someone get shot in the chest from mere feet away by a powerful .38 pistol round, yet have no exit wound and leave neither definitive blood nor gunpowder residue in the car? The state argued that Demery and Green had simply cleaned up the car because they were thorough operators. Mumma is incredulous that could be the case; the duo were reckless enough to incriminate themselves on car-phone calls and flaunt Jordan’s jewelry in a rap video that was used against them as evidence.
“Forensics found evidence of blood that couldn’t even be seen by the naked eye. A teenager cannot make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without leaving a trail of evidence behind them,” Mumma says. “For them to have committed a murder and gotten rid of all the evidence, it’s just not conceivable.”
The second enduring question is the magic bullet hole found in Jordan’s knit Grand Slam pullover. The initial autopsy report accounts for three bullet holes in the lower portion of the pullover, not near the chest where the bullet was lodged. The autopsy suggests that this would correspond to a shirt that was pulled up — which aligns with Green’s claim that Demery told him the man he shot had actually pulled a gun on him, according to Mumma.
But in the trial, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigations identified a fourth hole near the chest wound, claiming lab tests had found traces of gunpowder. In trying to explain when and how the hole appeared, Green’s lawyers point to how the shirt traded hands four different times, over the course of several days. “A hole in the shirt doesn’t seem like something a medical examiner would miss,” Mumma says.
Then there are the red flags that came up during the investigatory process, which Mumma claims is rife with issues that commonly lead to wrongful convictions. First, she claims that law enforcement pressured Demery and pitted him against Green to break their initial story apart, threatening him with the death sentence — a hardball tactic that is both common and increasingly criticized because they warp prosecutory outcomes. In December 2018, Mumma sat down with Demery at Scotland Correctional Institution, where he has been serving his sentence, to hear a different version of his tale. She submitted a sworn affidavit shortly afterward, noting that Demery claimed investigators pushed him to identify Green as the triggerman and that Demery was “coached by law enforcement to lie.” There remains no physical evidence that directly ties Green to the shooting of the gun.
Second, Mumma notes that a critical phone call was left unexplained by the state’s investigation. The first call made from the Lexus was almost on-the-nose typical of a teenage boy on a joyride — a 1-800 phone sex line. The second, made the morning after the murder at 10:36 a.m., went to a man named Hubert Larry Deese — a known area drug trafficker, a co-worker of Demery’s at Crestline Homes and the biological son of the Robeson County sheriff whose office handled Jordan’s murder.
“The FBI informed the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation that they were looking into Hubert Larry Deese for drug trafficking at the time of the murder. That was never shared with the defense. The state stood there while the defense was struggling to present that Demery was associated with Deese, and this was Deese’s phone number. The judge is saying, ‘How did we know it’s Deese’s phone number?’ But the state knew, and said nothing,” Mumma alleges.
Green, meanwhile, has endured unexpected delay after delay in prison. His first attorney had a conflict of interest while representing drug traffickers associated with Deese, but didn’t declare a conflict, instead leaving Green’s case after five years of “finding nothing,” Mumma says. His second attorney did have a conflict of interest — he represented the young men who stripped and vandalized the Lexus when they found it in the forest — but only left the case after years of inaction. In 2008, Green got more new counsel, but nothing was filed until 2015.
These problems, along with others that Mumma has excavated in the last five years, paint a picture of a disjointed investigation that led to a convenient conclusion in a case with much more to reveal. Mumma is explicit in listing racism as one of the factors in why the trial sped along; an explosion of drug trafficking in North Carolina in the early 1990s left many people with an image of young black men with criminal records that affected the judgment of Green, too.
But while she is confident that her team has enough evidence to seriously question the merits of the case, actually securing time in court for Green’s story has become a Sisyphean effort. She was stunned to hear last year that a judge had officially ruled against granting a hearing for Green, now 45. Next, her team will petition an appellate court to review the ruling, she says.
In the meantime, Mumma can’t help but mull a different timeline of events, again and again. Her theory is that someone else was with Demery when Jordan was shot, not at the side of the road but at a nearby Quality Inn notorious for being a gambling hotspot. An altercation or mistaken identity could’ve led to Jordan being killed, she says. “And there were several hours after Jordan was shot before Demery went to go get Daniel. I think that Demery was told he was going down one way or the other, and he could take somebody else with him, and the other people who were involved in that murder would make sure that his family was okay while he was in prison,” she tells me.
But, for now, this remains a mere theory. What she can prove are the irregularities behind the magic bullet hole, the lack of blood, the lack of anything beyond the word of a scared teenager cuffed to a chair. Despite that, she is staring at a rapidly narrowing road ahead. Mumma exhales a curt sigh as she admits that Green reminds her, all the time, that she assured him a hearing.
“I don’t think it’s closure, finality or the normal things we argue in post-conviction that’s keeping Daniel from getting a hearing. Those are the normal roadblocks that I beat my head against all the time. But instead of a brick wall, this is a steel one,” she tells me. “There’s no question it is because of who the victim is, and that connection with someone everybody sees as a hero.”