Massive Protest Challenges Virginia Murder Verdict

RICHMOND, VA, March 30 — In a scene reminiscent of the 2007 grassroots mobilization around the case of the Jena 6, nearly 700 people marched Sunday from a Baptist church to the courthouse of rural Powhatan County, Va., about 30 miles west of Richmond.

The majority-Black crowd, which included a sizable number of local white youths, were denouncing what they charged was a racially motivated decision by a Powhatan jury.

“Premeditated murder” is what Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert B. Beasley had called the shooting death of Tahliek Taliaferro, 18, a popular African-American local high school athlete.  But on March 23 a nearly all-white jury convicted Ethan Parrish, then 24, and his cousin, Joseph “Joey” Parrish, 18, of the much lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, recommending a sentence of just 11 years.  Both Parrishes are white.

Taliaferro died last June when Ethan Parrish, by his own admission, fired a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle at a car in which the Black youth was riding.  Shortly before, according to a witness, Parrish had attached an 83-round drum clip to the weapon, saying he was going to “smoke” Taliaferro.

Also shot in the attack was Taliaferro’s friend Courtney Jones, then 15, who survived but had to undergo surgery to remove part of his colon.

At his trial, Ethan Parrish said he had only been trying to scare the car’s occupants when the assault rifle “got away” from him.

A semiautomatic weapon can only be fired by pulling the trigger for each individual shot.  Ethan Parrish fired six times.

According to courtroom testimony, the shooting stemmed from a long-running feud between Taliaferro and Joey Parrish.  Meeting by chance last June at a local Sheetz gas station, the Parrishes reportedly challenged Taliaferro to a fight.  The Parrish cousins left in an SUV driven by Stephanie Reynolds, then 19, followed Taliaferro and Jones in a car driven by their friend Lawrence Harris.

A short time later, the Parrishes pulled off to the side of the road and waited for the other youths to catch up with them.  According to Reynolds, Ethan Parrish ordered Joey to cover the SUV’s license plate with a plastic bag.  After watching the car carrying Taliaferro and his friends drive by, Ethan Parrish fired six times, hitting Taliaferro in the head and gravely wounding Jones.  Reynolds later testified that Ethan Parrish fired after he saw Taliaferro laughing at him.

Reynolds turned herself in to the police, but the Parrishes fled to Canada.  At the urging of their families, they returned a few days later and also surrendered.

The Parrish cousins were charged with eight offenses, including first-degree murder, malicious wounding, and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.  Joey Parrish was also charged with possession of a firearm by a felon.

But a jury of 11 whites and one Black convicted Ethan Parrish on the much lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter in Taliaferro’s shooting and assault and battery in the wounding of Jones, recommending a sentence of just 11 years.  Ethan Parrish will be sentenced in April.   Joey Parrish was convicted of the same two charges, plus the additional charge of possession of a firearm by a felon.  His sentencing, to be imposed by a judge because he was a minor at the time of the shooting, is scheduled for April 14.

“Justice wasn’t served,” said an angry Kaa Caputo, Taliaferro’s mother.

The jury pool of 40 people had reportedly included only three Blacks.  The Virginia NAACP is now raising questions about the fairness of the jury selection process.

Stephanie Reynolds’ case is to be reviewed, also on April 14, by a grand jury.  Last week, her original charge of first-degree murder was reduced to involuntary manslaughter.

The Parrishs’ verdict and sentencing have been met with widespread shock and outrage by both Black and white county residents.  After the trial, dozens of Black and white youths joined Taliaferro’s family in several protests denouncing what they called a racist verdict and sentence.  Powhatan Sheriff Greg Neal, who is white, has questioned the jury’s decision.

Taliaferro’s family and the Powhatan County Branch NAACP then called for a larger protest, to take place Sunday, March 29.  The call was widely forwarded by King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference NAACP, and was promoted by the Black media in Central Virginia.

On the day of the march, hundreds of people gathered at Hollywood Baptist Church, a few blocks from the county courthouse.  Many held homemade signs denouncing the Parrish jury conviction and sentence as a racist miscarriage of justice.

The protesters included Taliaferro’s mother and father and other family members, Powhatan NAACP President Rovenia Vaughan, and former county Board of Supervisors member Margaret Harris-Manning.  The 84-year-old Harris-Manning, the first and only Black person to be elected to the board, lost her seat in 2004 after her district was reconfigured.

Taking over one lane of two-lane Buckingham Road, the protesters marched to the courthouse in silence, following the wishes of Taliaferro’s family.  But by the time the crowd arrived at the courthouse, anger and outrage had burst into the open as protesters loudly chanted “No Justice, No Peace!”  For more than a half hour they circled the courthouse lawn, which features a statue honoring Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

“What you are seeing here is something that has never happened in Powhatan,” Khalfani told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.  “There are people here from across Virginia.”

While many whites in the county have joined with their neighbors to express outrage in the case, the Parrishes still have their hard-core supporters, as evidenced by the handful of hostile whites who drove past the marchers.  One vehicle had a horn that sounded out the tune to the racist anthem “Dixie.”

Security for the march was organized by the NAACP, with support from Richmond Jobs with Justice and the Richmond-based community organization Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which also donated 100 signs that read “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All — Justice for Tahliek Taliaferro!”

Most of the protesters seemed to come from Powhatan, a county of just under 28,000, of whom about 4,200, or 15.3 percent, are African-American.  Others had traveled from further away, including representatives from the grassroots immigrant organization Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (Mexicans Without Borders) of Northern Virginia, People United of Charlottesville, Little Flower Catholic Worker of Louisa County, Richmond Jobs with Justice, Richmond Peace Education Center, Pax-Christi-Richmond, and the Richmond-based Defenders.  All of these organizations, along with NAACP Executive Director Khalfani, are affiliated with a recently formed statewide coalition called the Virginia People’s Assembly.

The protest received widespread local media coverage, although the Richmond NBC TV affiliate, Channel 12, reported that only “dozens” of people had participated, a misrepresentation clearly contradicted by its own video coverage.  The Times-Dispatch reported the number of protesters as 300.  However, Defender Ana Edwards stood by the side of the march and individually counted 520 participants.  At least 50 more people were waiting at the courthouse, and many more joined the protest there.

The county and state NAACP have called for another protest for April 14, when Joey Parrish is scheduled for sentencing.

For more information, contact the Virginia State Conference NAACP at (804) 321-5678.

Phil Wilayto is a founding member of the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality and the author of In Defense of Iran among other books.  He can be reached at <>.