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My brother’s killer is now my friend

Ronnie and Denise

Denise Taylor had just graduated from college when her brother Bo was murdered. For years she struggled to come to terms with the loss. Then she spent more than a decade trying to get her brother’s killer out of prison.

Denise Taylor had just graduated
from college when her brother
Bo was murdered.

For years she struggled to come to
terms with the loss.

Then she spent more than a decade
trying to get her brother’s killer
out of prison.

 

There are already three women in the room when the Taylors arrive. Jim Taylor heads to the opposite corner from where the trio is seated. His grown-up daughter, Denise, follows him. The two groups eye each other uncomfortably. This is the room that you wait in before attending a parole board hearing where they decide whether a prisoner should be released.

Neither the women nor the Taylors are used to seeing other people here, at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California. They are unsure if they are there in opposition to each other. They don’t talk, but they listen. After a few minutes they realise that they are all victims of a crime, and that they are attending different parole hearings. One of the women turns to the Taylors, a look of relief on her face. “You’re not the enemy,” she says. “I’m not the enemy to anybody, not even the defendant,” Jim replies.

The women look at each other. They weren’t expecting that. In their world, defendants are always the enemy and victims attend parole hearings for one reason – to make sure the enemy doesn’t get out. They try again. This time a different woman asks Jim how long he has been coming here. “Twelve years,” he says.

He keeps talking. One day, he says, he hopes to visit the defendant outside prison. That is not what the women want for the defendant whose parole hearing they are there to attend. When a prosecutor informs them that their inmate’s parole will hopefully be denied, they nod in agreement. “Hopefully,” they say. Jim looks at his daughter, Denise. “Situation’s different,” he says.

She is the reason they are there, Denise and her brother, Bo. But Bo is dead. Ronnie Fields, the man whose parole they are there to support, murdered him.

He doesn’t look at them. He is dressed in what look like blue hospital scrubs. He has a beard and black glasses: Ronald Fields, inmate D00742. The Taylors call him Ronnie. Rules dictate that Fields should not look at the Taylors unless given permission to do so.

The Taylors have left the waiting room and are now across the hall in Conference Room Two. The prosecuting attorney doesn’t talk to the Taylors and he doesn’t make room for them next to him at the table.

They find seats against the wall with the victim’s advocate, a large woman with an abundance of purple hair. Fields sits at the table, next to his state-appointed attorney, DeJon Ramone Lewis, the same lawyer who represented Charles Manson at Manson’s parole hearing in 2012.

It is just after 08:30 in the morning on 6 December 2016 when commissioner Jack Garner begins introductions. He warns the Taylors that the documents he will be reading from may be graphic and difficult for them to hear. They know. They have heard the story before. It starts on a September afternoon in 1984 with Bo and a friend trying to buy marijuana in Compton, a city in Los Angeles County synonymous with gang violence. It ends with Bo being shot.

There are more details in the court documents: the location of the liquor store where Bo and his friend found Fields’s friend smoking a joint, the different places Fields took them to purchase pot, the type of car Fields was driving, the name of the street Bo was killed on.

The only detail that really matters though is that after deciding to take Bo’s money without handing over the drugs, Fields took a home-made gun from his car. He told Bo and Bo’s friend to run.

Bo, confused, asked: “What?”

There was a single shot. It struck Bo in the heart. Fields was sentenced to a minimum of 27 years.

Thirty-two years later Bo’s father makes his way to one of the room’s many microphones. He is here to voice his support for Field’s release, something only about 1% of victims’ families do, according to commissioner Garner. Jim shuffles the way old men do, stumbling slightly. He is 78 now, with white hair and a bit of a belly. He has a tendency to ramble. It doesn’t take long for him to deviate from the statement his daughter helped him prepare. He mentions Fields’s father and then how much Fields has changed over the years.

“I don’t know how he could show any more remorse than he has,” Jim says, his voice cracking. “Certainly, I’m satisfied.”

Denise hands her father a tissue. Then she replaces him at the table and reads her own statement. She is 54 and has lived most of her life without her brother, her only full biological sibling.

Her father removes his glasses and wipes his eyes. Denise stops for a minute, unable to continue. Then starts again:

Having to come back to these parole hearings year after year only causes more pain to me and my family.”

“I realise that Mr Fields’s crime is considered to be against the state, but we are the ones who live the day-to-day reality of the loss of my brother, Bo. And also the continued imprisonment of the man responsible for his death, a sentence that we no longer support.”

Denise makes her way back to her seat. Jim puts his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. He pats her back. She says:

I get more emotional each time. I never cried in the first hearing.”

The murder

It was the year they were supposed to become friends. That is what Denise hoped. It was 1984 and she was back home in Manhattan Beach, outside Los Angeles, a 22-year-old college graduate. She was going to work and apply to medical school while living at home. She would have time on her hands, time she wanted to use to get to know her little brother better. Bo was an adult now, 19.

Denise thought if she made the effort they could be friends, just like her father and his sister were.

As children, Denise and Bo had never really got along. Denise was the “good kid”. She did well in school, stayed out of trouble and listened to her parents. Back when they had a shared bedroom, her side was always neat and orderly. Bo’s side was pure chaos. His report cards were never good. He was always finding ways to get out of class, getting in trouble. He was like that even before their parents divorced, but Denise thinks the divorce made things worse. It happened when she was about 13 and it split the siblings apart, Bo went with their father and Denise went with their mother. Denise felt lucky. She remembers her father as angry.

Jim admits he has had to work to become the person he is today, hinting at earlier struggles. He completed a 12-step addiction programme before he got what he describes as a second chance at life.

He comes from a very conservative religious background. He remembers thinking people in his church, the Church of Christ, were good, but outsiders – Pentecostals, Baptists – were bad. It was a narrow tunnel vision it took him years to shed, one that his children followed when they were young. Denise told her grade school friends that she wished they would go to church because she was sad they were going to go to hell.

Although he has softened over the years and discarded some of his earlier hard-line viewpoints, Jim still teases Denise for being too liberal. He questions whether Bo would have changed, whether Bo would have used the potential he believes he wasted:

I always wondered what Bo would be. He was a troubled child. But I’ve seen others turn their lives around.”

No-one seems to remember whether Bo graduated from high school. Denise recalls him being into gardening. Both she and her father remember him hanging out at the beach, his hair blond and tousled, his chest bare, just like it was the day he was shot.

He had been at the beach that day. Two African-American girls asked him and his friend for a ride home. That is how Bo, a white boy from an upper-middle-class suburban enclave, ended up in Compton in the 1980s, a time when the crack epidemic was destroying inner cities. Bo wasn’t from that world, but he didn’t think anything of asking two young African-American men where he could get some pot.

He had dropped the girls off by then and was parked outside a liquor store in a neighbourhood where he didn’t belong. At first, Fields thought Bo and his friend were cops. Then, after he figured out they were just clueless kids, he decided to rip them off, by taking their money without delivering the pot.

Denise was coaching soccer that day. It was a Saturday and her team had a game the next day. She was at her mother’s house when one of Bo’s friends came by and told them that Bo had been shot. When they arrived at the hospital a doctor pulled them aside:

We tried to revive him, tried to sew the hole up in his heart. We couldn’t revive him. I’m sorry to tell you, he’s dead.”

That’s what Denise remembers the doctor saying. But it didn’t sink in. Stuff like that didn’t happen where they were from. Denise was sobbing when she called her father. Jim couldn’t understand what she was telling him. It sounded like she was saying Bo was dead.

“But it didn’t make sense,” says Jim. “I mean my son doesn’t die – my son didn’t get killed.”

When he finally understood, Jim imagined a motorcycle accident. Bo had a friend who had been killed in a biking accident not long before. But Bo had been murdered.

Jim went to every legal proceeding: the preliminary hearing, the trial, the sentencing. He took detailed notes. He wanted the death penalty for Fields. He fantasised about bringing a gun to court and shooting the man who killed his only son. Years later, after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, he started referring to his son’s murder as his personal September 11th.

Denise went to the first day of the trial. She didn’t attend the sentencing, but she telephoned in and said she wanted Fields to be sentenced to life without parole. She became scared of black people. When an elderly African-American couple stopped her to ask for directions she wondered if they wanted to hurt her:

There was just the sense that you don’t know what’s coming – it could come from anywhere.”

She cried through one medical school interview, aced another by mentioning her brother’s murder when asked to talk about trauma. When she graduated from medical school there was no picture of her with her brother like the one taken at her college graduation. He wasn’t there at her wedding or when she had her first and then her second child. But she never forgot him. She mentioned him on the order of service for her wedding and named her first son Jonathan, after him. Jonathan was Bo’s real name but Jim used to call his son “Boy” and as a toddler Denise copied him. It was because her “boy” came out as “bo” that her brother became Bo.

 

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