James Jordan's murder was about more than the death of a superstar's father

·6 min read

The abridged version of the Michael Jordan story goes something like this: Carolina boy misses the cut for his high school team, seals an NCAA crown for North Carolina on a late bucket and lifts the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships on the way to becoming the greatest basketball player of all time, a world-class grudge holder and an icon many times over. The murder of his father, James – if it even manages a passing mention in the legend – is couched as little more than an unfortunate episode in the hero’s inexorable journey to the top. But the unabridged version of that story is nowhere near as neat or tidy.

The messy details are fully reckoned with on screen at last in Moment of Truth: the Killing of James Jordan, a five-part docuseries that premieres on Amazon’s IMDb TV on Friday. The series starts in the summer of 1993, when James Jordan went missing for three weeks before his body was discovered in a South Carolina creek. Jordan was believed to have been shot to death as he napped on the side of a North Carolina highway while driving home from a funeral in the small hours of 23 July.

Jordan’s corpse was so badly decomposed the South Carolina coroner tagged him a John Doe and saved his hands and jaw for future identification. His red Lexus SC400, found destroyed in North Carolina some 60 miles from his body, was stolen along with money and personal effects that included a pair of NBA rings – gifts from Michael, of course. Car phone records eventually led a two-state, tri-county investigation to two teenage friends with rap sheets: Daniel Green, a black man, and Larry Demery, a Native American. James Jordan was just days away from his 57th birthday.

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Initially framed as a random carjacking gone horribly awry, the crime shocked the country. (Bear in mind: this is a year before the OJ circus and more than three years before Bill Cosby’s only son met an eerily similar end.) It shook me: a 13-year-old Bulls-mad, Chicago native whose fierce loyalty to MJ traced to a father who had made sport of taking me trawling around the Near West Side blocks surrounding Chicago Stadium for second-hand tickets on school nights. For the better part of that summer, it seemed, there was no more pressing news story in Chicagoland than the murder of James Jordan – even as fresh cases cropped up around town daily. We all knew what James meant to Michael because Michael meant so much to us. Hell, we had just seen them toweling champagne off each other inside a jubilant Bulls locker room after sealing the first three-peat. We took it personally.

But when MJ suddenly convened a world-stopping retirement news conference months after striking gold with the Dream Team in Barcelona, local despair over his father’s killing was quickly forgotten. When Michael further set his mind to playing professional baseball – something his dad had always wanted to see him try – well, that didn’t just quash local curiosity in James Jordan’s sad end; it gave NBA fans permission to run wild with conspiracy theories about the killing and Michael’s retirement being gambling related. Michael’s public reluctance to dwell on his father’s murder only made it easier for the rest of us to traffic in rumor and innuendo when we weren’t fiendishly tracking MJ’s minor-league batting average or foolishly pinning hopes of a four-peat on Scottie Pippen playing nice with Tony Kukoc – all storylines that have been unpacked in documentaries, by the by.

Moment of Truth director Matthew Perniciaro, who reached out to the Jordan family in the early stages of his project and was respectfully turned down, can relate. Like me, he was a teenage Jordan fan in the 90s. “As a kid growing up in North Carolina at that time, there was this extra degree of pride because he was from the same place,” he says. But, unlike me, Perniciaro never lost sight of the real tragedy. “The Jordan family is so beloved in North Carolina. The case, the murder of James Jordan, was reported on way more heavily here than it was on a national level. And because of that, I had a huge awareness of the story for the majority of my life. It’s probably the most well-known criminal case in North Carolina history.”

On the books, the final legal decision reads like a blowout victory for the state. Demery and Green were pitted against each other. Demery flipped. His confessions under interrogation and on the witness stand not only pinned the whole scheme – killing included – on his accomplice, but painted him a sadistic reveler. Meanwhile, Green missed a shot to sell judge Gregory A Weeks on a mistrial after going the entire trial without testifying. By March 1996 both were convicted and given life sentences.

Larry Demery, left, and Daniel Green, are serving jail terms for the killing of James Jordan
Larry Demery, left, and Daniel Green, are serving jail terms for the killing of James Jordan. Photograph: Jim Bounds/AP

What Perniciaro and his team do so artfully in Moment of Truth, thanks in large part to WRAL-TV’s trove of archival footage, is restore the sociopolitical context that was eclipsed by the starlight of the Jordan name. The documentary cannonballs into the history of North Carolina’s Robeson county, the trial venue and a majority-minority county with deep divides along black and Native American lines; a massive confederate monument stands sentinel on the county courthouse steps. We’re introduced to scene-chewing good ol’ boys like Johnson Britt, the straight-arrow DA hellbent on winning his biggest ever case; and Hubert Stone, the grandstanding county sheriff whose out-of-wedlock son – Hubert Larry Deese – was a convicted drug trafficker with apparent ties to Demery; Deese’s number was among the first to pop up on the car phone log. How was that not grist for the worldwide conspiracy mill?

But the people you’ll most likely feel for most – apart from the Jordan family, of course – are Green, a too-familiar, bright-but-neglected type whose biggest crime might well have been a perverse loyalty to Demery; and Christine Mumma, the innocence attorney who went as far as running for state attorney general to help Green’s cause – only to have her exoneration record used against her in 2020’s Republican primary.

That’s the thing about this documentary: the deeper it looks into the past, the more it seems to hold a mirror to the present. “I’ve always viewed James Jordan’s murder and the case and the convictions in the trial and everything that takes place afterwards as a gateway into a larger story about our society and specifically about corruption in law enforcement and systemic racism and the criminal justice system,” Perniciaro says. “As we as were making the series, it was really sobering and difficult trying to process how little progress has been made in 30 years.”

What’s more, the story doesn’t end after episode five. Demery was granted parole last summer and is scheduled to be released in August 2023. Green, who has long maintained his innocence and failed in his attempts to get a new trial, is eligible for parole in October. If anything, the plot is thickening. But through forensic reporting and an unerring focus, Moment of Truth at least takes the idea of James Jordan’s murder as a mere character-building subplot to the larger Michael Jordan mythos and thoroughly lays that to rest.