Tahliek Taliaferro's grandmother Jean at her home in Powhatan. Jay Paul photos
On a March evening nearly as hot as midsummer, Tahliek Taliaferro's family gathers in the dead boy's house, and they are raging.
"I thought that when they say, ‘Leave this to the justice system,' I would get closure," says Calvin Taliaferro, Tahliek's 47-year-old uncle. "I still ain't got closure."
As Calvin paces the front room, he catches sight of Tahliek's grandmother, 67-year-old Jean Taliaferro, who raised him. She is crying, as she has every day, several times a day since Tahliek died, shot in the back of the head with a MAK-90 assault rifle.
Calvin barks at her. "Stop crying."
"I can't," she snaps back. "Tahliek was my baby."
She stalks out of the house to sit on the front porch. Inside, the voices of Tahliek's uncles, cousins and his mother rise in a cacophony as they discuss again the details of the killing.
Tahliek and his friend, Courtney Jones, both African-American high school students, were shot on June 24, 2008, during a conflict with two cousins from a white Powhatan County family. Though it's been nearly two years since then, the Taliaferros are mired in fury and sadness, unable to move on because they believe Tahliek's killers have gone virtually unpunished.
The case became a cause célèbre for African-American organizations in Richmond and elsewhere. The Rev. Curtis Harris, who worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., joined rallies supporting the Taliaferros, as did King Salim Khalfani, the Richmond-based executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. And it provoked an FBI investigation into whether the shooting should be deemed a "hate crime" and retried in federal courts.
But it was the verdict at the end of the trial that raised the most controversy. At first, the cousins, Ethan Parrish, 22, and Joseph "Joey" Parrish Jr., 17, as well as Joey's friend Stephanie Reynolds, were charged with premeditated murder. But a jury of 11 white people and one black man reduced the charges to involuntary manslaughter, categorizing the death as unintentional. Instead of life or decades in prison, Ethan got 11 years, Joey 16 years, and Stephanie received immunity for testifying.
In May, Joey's Richmond attorney Craig Cooley was expected to petition Virginia's Supreme Court to reduce Joey's sentence. If the appeal, which was rejected by the Virginia's Court of Appeals, is upheld, Joey will be out of prison in three years. In an interview from Virginia's Greensville Correctional Center, Joey says he wants to return to Powhatan, though hostility still lingers in the county.
Tahliek's grandmother, Jean, cries so much that she loses her voice. Joey's mother, Cindy Parrish, bitterly complains that her son and Ethan were maligned by reporters who instantly favored Tahliek. And the case still provokes anger among people less directly affected.
"That trial was like some kind of TV drama," says Archie Fleming, a Chesterfield resident who was among those who protested the verdict in front of the Powhatan courthouse.
Jean's daughter, Kaa, was only 15 when she gave birth to Tahliek, and his father disappeared soon after. "He went to prison," Jean whispers. When Tahliek was 2, Jean intervened, bringing him from Richmond to her home in rural Powhatan County, where her family has lived for generations. With the help of her youngest son, Gregory, Jean raised Tahliek, taking him to church regularly, surrounding him with relatives from his sprawling, multigenerational family.
Jean says she was closer to Tahliek than she was to her own children. "I could never stay mad at Tahliek," she says. "He would say, ‘Ma, I love you,' and I couldn't stay mad. He weren't a saint. Ain't nobody a saint. But he was a good boy."
And with her own children grown, he was almost all she had.
Tahliek was a star in the context of small-town Powhatan. He was popular and handsome, his lean face the color of pale oak. He was a good basketball player and exceptional enough at football to have a shot at making a career of it. Before he was killed, he received a letter from Cornell suggesting that he apply for a scholarship.
In contrast, Joey cut a less impressive figure. Small for his age, Joey tried but dropped team sports. By the time he was in high school, he smoked marijuana on a regular basis and had been convicted of grand larceny, according to court records.
He was close to his cousin Ethan. They both hunted, and Ethan collected an impressive array of weapons, pistols, rifles, and his MAK-90. Like Joey, Ethan got into legal trouble — in his case, for DUIs — says Thomas Warren, the Powhatan County Circuit Court judge who presided over the trial.
Still, by the time Ethan was in his early 20s, he had built a stable life, and he tried to guide his younger cousin. Ethan owned a carpet-installation business, and he gave Joey work, trying to show his cousin that learning a trade could be an alternative to school.
The toxic link between Joey and Tahliek was a young woman, Jessica Wright, who had been Joey's friend since fourth grade. Later, Joey and Jessica tried to date, a "holding hands kind of thing," Joey's mother says, until they realized that they were better suited to being friends.
Instead, Jessica dated Tahliek in high school. When Tahliek's temper flared, Jessica said in her testimony, he could be abusive, and after he hit her, she broke up with him. When Joey found out, he was determined to confront Tahliek, despite the athlete's physical advantage, Joey said. Tahliek was over 6 feet tall and nearly 200 pounds; Joey was 5'6" and about 130 pounds. In the months before the shooting, Joey and Tahliek arranged to have fistfights, Joey's appeal states.
With hostility as a backdrop, it didn't take much to set conflict in motion on the evening that Tahliek was killed. Earlier that day, Ethan, Joey and Joey's friend, Stephanie, had been smoking marijuana, drinking and taking LSD, according to Stephanie and Joey.
After partying into the afternoon, the threesome drove in Ethan's Durango to a parking lot near Bruster's ice cream stand and ran into Tahliek and his friends. Stephanie, who was at the wheel, was focused on driving out of a bad situation. As she took off, Joey yelled out the window, "Follow us if you want to fight us," and Tahliek urged his friends to pursue, according to testimony.
Inside the Durango, both guys were fuming about "having to finish" the conflict, Stephanie testified. Ethan climbed into the back seat to get his MAK-90 while ordering Stephanie to turn around and go back, so Tahliek and his friends "could catch up." After refusing several times, she complied, pulling into a driveway on Dorset Road across from an Arabian horse farm.
"Ethan said he was going to smoke them … scare them … shoot out their tires," Stephanie testified. By the time Tahliek and his friends pulled up in a Saturn, according to Stephanie, "Ethan was hanging out the window with the gun in his hand. Tahliek laughed at Ethan when the gun was pointed at him. … He was kind of saying he wasn't scared. … And Ethan pulled the trigger."
After the first shots, the Saturn sped up, and Ethan kept firing, six bullets in all. Ethan would testify that he shot in self-defense because the Saturn's driver, Lawrence Harris, pointed a gun at him. (In his testimony, Lawrence denied seeing a BB gun in the Saturn before police recovered it.) Ethan said he shot at the ground, intending to scare them, and then "lost control of the gun." When police arrived, Tahliek lay in the front passenger seat, a BB gun at his feet. Courtney Jones was bleeding from a bullet that struck his spine, and Stephanie and the Parrish cousins had fled.
With its clapboard buildings and neat lawns, downtown Powhatan looks like a place that should be featured in a coffee-table book. So the crowds, the placards, and the shouting in front of the courthouse during and after the trial seemed incongruous. Hundreds of people showed up, mostly African-Americans but also Tahliek's white high school friends.
After the prosecution and defense made their cases, jurors were left with a stack of conflicting testimony. Did Ethan shoot in self-defense, as he testified, because he mistook a BB gun for the real thing? Or did Ethan and Joey set up an ambush, as the prosecution argued?
When the jury delivered its verdict of involuntary manslaughter, the Taliaferros were stunned. Tahliek's mother broke into sobs that contorted her face. His grandmother, Jean, walked out of the courthouse and collapsed. The Rev. Curtis told reporters that the verdict was a "legal lynching."
Judge Warren, keeping a far tighter wrap on his emotions, admonished Joey.
"This happened largely because of you," he said. "You were in the car that pulls up at the Bruster's when everybody else is having ice cream. You were the one that knew everybody. Ethan, I don't believe, would have even done any of this stuff if it hadn't of been for you, fueling this fire that has been going for I don't know how many months."
From prison nearly two years after the killing, Joey hopes that the state Supreme Court will overrule the appeals court's rejection of his appeal. The petition argues that Ethan didn't tell anyone in the Durango that he planned to shoot Tahliek and Courtney. Instead, Ethan killed Tahliek in a case of "involuntary manslaughter," meaning it was an accident. As a result, the appeal argues, Joey couldn't have acted as an accessory because he didn't know the shooting was going to happen.
"Joey won't let this go," his mother says during an interview several days after the lower court's ruling. "He'll want to take the case to the Supreme Court."
Cooley says he will file the appeal with the state's highest court by the end of May and that he expects a ruling within six months. "There are a fair number of cases" in which the Supreme Court differs with the appellate court," Cooley says. If that happens, the manslaughter charges against Joey would be dropped, leaving him to serve whatever is left of a five-year sentence for illegal weapons possession.
When Jean heard about the appeal in April, she was so still it seemed as if her heart had stopped for a moment. Then in a small voice she asked, "How can that happen?"
She hopes that an FBI investigation into the shooting will give the Parrishes more time, not less. The probe is focused on whether the shooting should be deemed a hate crime because of "certain statements made while [it] was committed," says M. A. Myers, former spokesman for the FBI's Richmond field office. If it is, Joey and Ethan could be retried in federal court.
Several days after hearing about the appeal, Jean has not told her sons, Calvin and Gregory. Calvin is still so enraged, Jean says, she fears his reaction to the idea that Joey might be walking around Powhatan in a few years. Nor does she tell Gregory, who was a father figure for Tahliek.
When Jean wakes up in the middle of the night crying, she drives to the graveyard behind Little Zion Baptist Church and talks to Tahliek until she regains a sense of peace. To a lesser extent, she says, she can feel him in the house, because of the photos — Tahliek in his football uniform, Tahliek's young face centered among pictures of other children. One night, Jean says, she heard Tahliek coughing in his room. And just before Easter, when she was placing her ceramic decorations on an end table, she felt his hand on her back.