After Mass Protests . . . Maximum Penalties Imposed in Racially-charged Va. Murder Case

Thanks to a determined public campaign led by the victim’s family, a partial victory has been won in the legal battle surrounding the murder of a popular high school student in Powhatan County, Va.

On June 4, after months of mass marches and rallies that have mobilized as many as 700 people in this rural county about 30 miles west of Richmond, Circuit Judge Thomas V. Warren imposed the maximum sentences possible for Tahliek’s killers.

Cousins Ethan Scott Parish, 25, and Joseph “Joey” Parrish Jr., 18, received 10 years for involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting 18-year-old Tahliek Taliaferro, plus 12 months for wounding Tahliek’s friend Courtney Jones, then 15.  In addition, Joey Parrish, whom the judge described as having instigated the events that let to the shootings on June 28, 2008, will serve five more years for possession of a firearm by a felon.

The cousins also were ordered to pay compensation for Tahliek’s funeral and Courtney’s out-of-pocket medical expenses, a total of about $16,000.  Judge Warren dismissed a motion filed June 2 by Joey Parrish’s attorney to set aside his client’s verdict.

A third defendant, Stephanie Reynolds, 20, recently was set free with five years’ probation and no prison time.

For the Parrish sentencing hearing, only family members and the media were allowed inside the county’s small, 39-seat courthouse.  Outside, scores of Tahliek’s relatives and friends kept vigil under the watchful eyes of dozens of state troopers and sheriff deputies.  Local media had been predicting trouble if less-than-maximum sentences were imposed.

Kaa Caputo, Tahliek’s mother, described to the judge the effect of her son’s death on her family.  A few moments into her testimony, Taliek’s grandmother, Jean Taliaferro, broke down sobbing, left the courtroom and collapsed on the courthouse lawn.  Ms. Caputo testified that the grandmother now cries every day and visits her grandson’s grave “six or seven times a day, often at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Some time later, Joey Parrish’s father also left the courtroom.  According to eyewitnesses, he muttered the N-word at four Black teenagers, provoking a reaction from the youths.  Family members intervened, walking the teens away from the confrontation.  There were no arrests.

After the hearing, Ms. Caputo told reporters that, while she still believes real justice has yet to be achieved, she was heartened by today’s partial victory.  “The judge could have reduced the sentences even more,” she said.  “But I’m still going to fight for my baby!”

The shootings are now being investigated by the Richmond office of the FBI.  After today’s sentencing, the Rev. Indee Hopewell Brown, a spokeswoman for Family and Friends of Tahliek Taliaferro, said the family is hoping the Justice Department will file federal charges against the Parrishes and Reynolds for violating Tahliek’s and Courtney’s civil rights.

She also said the family intends to pursue a civil suit against Reynolds and the Parrish cousins.

Theodore Bruns, one of Ethan Parrish’s two attorneys, said his client was accepting the verdict in his case.  Joey Parrish’s attorney, Craig Cooley, said Joey would appeal his conviction.

Tahliek, a popular 18-year-old high school football player, was killed last June when Ethan Parrish opened fire with a semi-automatic assault rifle at a car in which Tahliek and Courtney were riding.  Ethan was accompanied by his cousin Joey and a friend, Stephanie Reynolds.  Courtney Jones was severely wounded in the attack.

According to courtroom testimony, Ethan Parrish, a Powhatan County business owner, had spent the day with his teenage companions, drinking alcohol, doing drugs, and driving around in his SUV.  Inside the vehicle were three guns, one of them a high-powered, semi-automatic AK-47.

Joey and Tahliek reportedly had had a long-running feud.  When the Parrishes and Reynolds ran into Tahliek, Courtney, and four of Tahliek’s friends at a local ice cream parlor, Joey challenged Tahliek, yelling, “If you want to fight, follow us!”  In response, Tahliek and his friends took off after the Parrishes and Reynolds in two cars.

A short time later, Ethan told Stephanie, who was driving the SUV, to pull over to the side of the road.  He then ordered Joey to cover the license plate with a piece of plastic.  Ethan loaded the AK-47 with an 83-shot drum clip, saying, according to Reynolds, that he was going to “smoke” Tahliek.

As the car with Tahliek and Courtney drove by, Ethan fired six shots, hitting Courtney in the back and Tahliek in the back of the head.  Tahliek apparently died at the scene.  Courtney survived after undergoing surgery in which part of his colon was removed.

Four days later, Reynolds turned herself in to local authorities, but the Parrishes had fled to Canada.  The cousins later returned and also surrendered to police.  The three initially were charged with first-degree murder in Tahliek’s death and aggravated malicious wounding in Courtney’s shooting.  Joey, a convicted felon, also was charged with unlawful possession of a firearm.

At the Parrishes’ trial, the defense attorneys argued that Ethan fired only after he saw what he thought was a pistol being pointed at him.  A BB gun was later found in the car in which Tahliek was riding.  Ethan was also the only one who testified he was sure he saw a gun.  Ethan also testified that he only meant to scare Tahliek and his friends by shooting into the ground and that his assault rifle had “gotten away” from him.

While this can happen with an automatic weapon, a semi-automatic firearm such as the one Ethan used can only be fired by pulling the trigger for each individual shot.

At a previous court hearing, Ethan’s father proudly told this reporter that his son was thoroughly familiar with firearms and was an “excellent shot.”  The father, wearing a cap with a military insignia, then marched up and down the courtroom sidewalk in front of the Taliaferro family with a hand-painted sign denouncing Tahliek as a member of a Black drug gang.

Despite the evidence of what the prosecutor had described as premeditated murder, the jury at the Parrishes’ trial had been instructed it could convict the Parrish cousins on a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum penalty of just 10 years.  A non-capital murder conviction can result in life in prison.

At today’s hearing, Powhatan Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Beasley mentioned that the written instructions to the Parrishes’ jury had actually been drafted by Joey Parrish’s lawyer.

At their March trial, the Parrishes were convicted on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.  The malicious wounding charge, a felony, was reduced to misdemeanor assault and battery.  Stephanie Reynolds’ charges were later similarly reduced.  Tried separately, she was released with credit for 10 months pretrial confinement.

The Parrishes’ jury was composed of 11 whites and one African-American.  The Parrishes and Reynolds are white, as were the judge and prosecutor.  Tahliek was African-American, as is Courtney.

The Parrishes’ conviction on the lesser charge provoked an immediate reaction in Powhatan, a county of about 27,000 residents, of whom about 15 percent are African-American.  After holding several protests of about 30 people each, the Taliaferro family called for a mass march on the Powhatan County Courthouse for March 29.  Close to 700 people responded, constituting the largest Black protest in Virginia in decades and inspiring many participants to compare it to the 2007 protest in Jena, La.

Following that action, several county residents called the Powhatan sheriff’s office to report they had found KKK literature on their property, a development that further raised tensions in the county.

Nevertheless, two later marches also drew crowds of several hundred people, most of them African-American, but also including, as in the first march, a substantial number of whites.

Although the Richmond-area media has described the case as provoking a “racial divide” in Powhatan, the Taliaferro family from the beginning has been supported by many local white high school students, as well as adults, almost all of whom have charged that the reduced charges for the Parrishes and no prison time for Reynolds was influenced by the issue of race.

From the beginning, and especially after the dropping of the murder charges, the case has attracted widespread media coverage, as well as the support of a growing number of civil rights, community, and anti-war organizations.  Virginia State Conference NAACP President Rev. Rayfield Vines Jr. has attended marches and spoken at rallies, as has the Rev. Curtis Harris of Hopewell, Va., who is national vice president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Other supporters have included Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (Mexicans Without Borders), a largely Latino immigrant rights organization based in Northern Virginia; The People United, a Charlottesville-based immigrant advocacy organization; Little Flower Catholic Worker of Louisa County; the POWER organization of Portsmouth; Richmond Peace Education Center; Pax Christie-Richmond; Richmond-based Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, which has coordinated security for the marches and rallies; and many local affiliates of the Virginia People’s Assembly, a statewide coalition formed this January to oppose state budget cuts.  In addition, many members of Virginia Black motorcycle clubs have participated in the marches and rallies.

The day before the Parrishes’ sentencing hearing, state and local NAACP leaders called on Judge Warren to set aside the involuntary-manslaughter verdicts and instead convict Reynolds and the Parrish cousins of first-degree murder.

That evening, despite a severe thunderstorm that flooded city streets, about 60 people attended a vigil at Richmond’s Second Baptist Church called by the Family and Friends of Tahliek Taliaferro.

Noticeably absent from those speaking out on this case has been the state’s Democratic Party, even after Kaa Caputo publicly called on Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to send an observer from his office to today’s sentencing hearing, something the governor did not do.

“I don’t know what that would accomplish, since this is a different branch of government,” Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickley, a former police-beat reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Gov. Kaine, a former civil rights attorney elected with overwhelming support from the state’s Black voters, is also chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a close political ally of President Barack Obama.

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 <>.