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Incarcerated Father of Breonna Taylor is a Family Man / Public News Service

By Stephen Silha for Yes! Media.
Broadcast version by Lily Böhlke for Michigan News Connection reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration

Everette Taylor is a family man.

Except that he’s in prison and can’t see his family.

The slim, 6-foot-1-inch 45-year-old is being held at the Macomb Correctional Facility in Michigan. Over the past 23 years, he’s resided in 16 of Michigan’s 30 prisons, which house about 33,000 people-disproportionately men of color.

Taylor is not as famous as his daughter Breonna, who was killed by police in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 13, 2020, and whose death helped to spur the historic racial justice uprisings. He’s one of the 2.3 million mostly faceless incarcerated souls whose treatment is a stain upon America’s promise of liberty and justice for all.

It’s not that he didn’t deserve a term in prison, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to languish there for the rest of his life. Taylor had six kids before he was 19. Young, unemployed, and Black, he was determined to support them. Busted for dealing drugs, he’s spent the majority of his adult life in prison.

On Feb. 12, 1998, Taylor was dealing drugs, and when he delivered a bag to Elijah McGee through the driver’s window of the car, McGee sped off. Taylor grabbed and retained the bag of contraband, but one of his accomplices shot at the car and killed the driver.

So, Taylor was convicted, as per Michigan law, as an “aider and abettor,” an accomplice to the crime of first-degree murder.

Because he didn’t pull the trigger, the jury reduced his term to second-degree murder, sentencing him to 25-50 years in prison instead of life without parole.

Shortly after the shooting, the Grand Rapids police found drugs in the back seat of Taylor’s car-marijuana and cocaine. They booked him for drug possession with intent to sell, which carries a sentence of 20-40 years. But because he was given poor legal advice, Taylor’s sentences were carried out consecutively, not concurrently, which they would have been had the drug sentence come first. So, between the two convictions, he was sentenced to 45 years minimum in prison.

This is also known among prisoners as “death by incarceration.”

I am continually amazed by how many super-smart people are languishing in our prisons. So-called correctional facilities are essentially warehousing human beings, and many facilities are spreading disease and discouragement. Many inmates should instead be with their families and communities, working to create positive change. They should be lawyers, doctors, barbers, ministers, active fathers, hiking partners, chefs, lovers.

Many of these men and women have been forced to face up to who they are with days, weeks, months, or even years of introspection-the kind privileged people pay good money for at meditation retreats, drug therapies, and self-help seminars.

By all accounts, Everette Taylor has been as good a father as the prison system has allowed. Five of his kids have survived with his help and good counsel-but not his daughter Breonna, shot and killed in her own apartment by police who raided it, looking for drugs that were supposedly in another apartment.

I met Taylor through Joshua Puckett, the son of Joe Creedon, a dear friend who died of AIDS in 1991. After losing his father, Puckett came home from school one afternoon to discover that his mother and her wife had been murdered by their next-door neighbor. Traumatized, he joined a gang, and a 12-year-old girl was tragically killed in gang war crossfire.

Puckett has been in prison for 28 years. Like Taylor, he was sentenced for a crime he did not directly commit but in which he was involved as an “aider and abettor.” He has called for Taylor’s release.

Unthinkable Loss

Taylor is like many parents of color who have lost their beloved progeny to police violence in America.

Speaking to him via phone interviews, I found out that “Skeeter,” as his friends call him, had his own problems with police while growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the 1990s. Passed over for jobs because of his skin color, victim to the stagnant economic growth of that decade, he dealt drugs. It was the most lucrative and easy way to support his six children.

Back then, 21-year-old Skeeter was a popular man about town in Grand Rapids. Breonna was his fourth child, born when he was just 17. She and her mother, Tamika Palmer, moved to Louisville when Breonna was 5.

Taylor has chosen to stay in the background in the years since Breonna’s murder, saying he “didn’t want my record to detract from the situation at hand.”

But in fact, his record typifies important aspects of the many stories that Breonna’s death symbolizes. Tens of thousands of Americans-a majority of them people of color-were mistreated by police and unfairly sentenced after anti-marijuana and tough-on-crime laws (co-sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden) were passed in the 1980s and ’90s.

People like Taylor were labeled “super-predators” by politicians on both sides of the proverbial political aisle. Today, although many leaders disavow such language, people like Taylor remain incarcerated-an incalculable loss to his family and community.

“You’re either locked [up] or dead, basically,” says Taylor.

People Like Taylor Belong at Home With Family

“Skeeter is the glue [of the family],” affirms Taylor’s mother, Janice Rostic. She explains that his nickname originated after his uncle commented, when he was a baby, “His head looks like a mosquito!” Rostic didn’t like that, but her son nevertheless came to be called “Skeeter.”

Taylor’s son Everette III, who is named after him, is affectionately known as “Little Skeeter.” The 29-year-old reminisces, “Ever since I was in fourth grade, he’s reached out to me and given me good advice,” adding, “Even when I got in trouble, he’s been there for me.”

Our prisons are filled with people like Taylor who have turned themselves around in various ways-people whose insights, caring, and intelligence would be much more useful, and less expensive, on the outside than behind bars, and whose families yearn to be with them.

Taylor was sowing his oats and, in his words, “figuring things out” in 1992, when he was only 16. His six children-all from different mothers, in the span of only three years-were Asia, De’Andrea, Ateaonia, Breonna, Everette III, and Shantelle. “I was smoking so much marijuana,” he explains, “I honestly thought I was sterile.”

Today, his children are the center of his life. He writes and speaks with them regularly, encouraging them to have patience and to stay in touch with each other. “I really respect their mothers for keeping our family together, for letting me have access to them,” he says. He says he’s on good terms with them all-mothers and kids.

“Dad is the glue that keeps us together,” says his 29-year-old daughter De’Andrea, who goes by Dee Dee, and who until last year lived in Houston as a social worker for Goodwill.

Taylor’s dream is to continue to rebuild relationships with family and loved ones, to get a job, and to ultimately open a barber shop. Meanwhile, Dee Dee’s mission-as was Breonna’s-is to get their father out of prison.

Recently, Dee Dee moved back to Grand Rapids with the intention of opening “Breeway,” named after her late sister, as a halfway house for returning prisoners, including her dad.

Memories of Breonna, Family Aspirations

Like any family that loses a loved one, there’s a giant piece of the fabric missing, and everyone is trying to figure out how to stitch things back together after Breonna’s death. According to Ateaonia, her sister was “lively, sparkly, the life of the party.” Her father and surviving siblings attest to how she smiled a lot and was independent and driven to make life better for herself.

Breonna stayed in close contact with the family, texting and FaceTiming them often. She took her brother, Everette III, on memorable tours of Grand Rapids and Louisville. Like her father, she attracted people but didn’t demand attention. She was “laid-back,” as per her father’s favorite description of her.

According to her grandmother, Rostic, “These kids-including Breonna-are sisters and brother. There was never any sense of half-this or half-that.”

Yet there’s been no mention of these siblings in Breonna Taylor’s obituaries.

“Since we lost Breonna,” Ateaonia Taylor, 28, reports, “Dad’s been calling almost every day. He’s a great father. I wish he could be home with us, meet his grandkids, be with us.” Her 27-year-old sister Shantelle, who got married in September 2020, concurs, saying, “I wish he were here to walk through these times with me.”

“Thank God we can have real conversations,” says 29-year-old sibling Asia Tucker, grateful for the ability to communicate in spite of her father’s incarceration. “I feel closer to my dad than to my mom. He helped me stop smoking. And when I was homeless, he gave me hope.”

Taylor’s current “early release date” is 2031, which means he will be 54 years old by the time he is free. That’s nine more years of missing out on birthdays, weddings, Christmases, and being able to hug his children and mother.

“I wish I could hug Skeeter,” says Rostic. “I can’t imagine how it feels to be locked up and dealing with no visits because of COVID, in the middle of all this.”

Stephen Silha wrote this article for YES! Magazine.

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By Josh Puckett for Yes! Media.
Broadcast version by Lily Böhlke for Michigan News Connection reporting for the YES! Media-Public News Service Collaboration

The shooting death of Breonna Taylor two years ago in her Louisville, Kentucky, home by police rocked the nation and united millions to pressure the government for real police reform and a ban on “no-knock” warrants. This injustice, along with the public lynchings of George Floyd and others, also sheds light on the systemic and institutional racism that has infected all areas of our society. Yet, what’s missing from this set of revolutionary demands is comprehensive sentencing reform.

The source of the problem is systemic. When school systems are underfunded in our inner cities, children of color lose out. Then, employers tend to choose White male workers over Black, Latino, or women workers. Because of these failures, many young Black inner-city men find that the best way to get ahead is selling drugs. The problem is further compounded when a young Black man, like Breonna’s father, comes in contact with the police. In such encounters, Black men are lucky to walk away alive.

This system also pits Black men against each other. Sooner or later, if the police don’t arrest one drug seller, another, who has been betrayed by the same systemic racism, may try to rob him. The outcome is often death for one and prison for the other.

This is essentially Everette Taylor’s story. He was selling drugs because our society failed him, and he gave up on a legitimate livelihood. When he was 21, another Black man, also failed by society, came to rob him, and Taylor and his friends defended themselves. The other man died, and Taylor, although he wasn’t the shooter, faced a first-degree murder charge. The jury sentenced him to second-degree murder, in view of the fact that it was a drug deal gone wrong. The sentence was 25-50 years, plus two years for felony firearms possession.

Taylor could have gotten out of prison in 27 years-an extraordinarily long sentence, but not long enough for the state of Michigan, apparently. Michigan’s tough-on-drugs laws, with mandatory sentencing rules, removes a judge’s prerogative to render appropriate judgment in certain situations. Police later searched Taylor’s car and found the drugs that the man who came to rob him was after. Because Taylor received bad legal advice, the drug trial took place after the murder trial, and Taylor was then sentenced to another 20-40 years for drug possession. The judge was forced to stack this new sentence of 20-40 years on top of the 25-to-50-year sentence. Taylor was effectively relegated to life imprisonment.

The judge had no discretion to consider that Taylor was a 21-year-old young man with a brain not yet fully developed, who society had failed, and who was forced into selling drugs because of underfunded schools, poor education, and being passed over for good jobs because he was Black.

Everette, who remained close to all six of his children, including Breonna while she was alive, is still being held in a Michigan prison after 23 years.

Michigan has mandatory sentencing rules from an earlier era when old White state legislators in Lansing referred to young Black men as “super-predators” as they competed with one another to see who could be more “tough on crime.” Hence, Michigan, like other states, has a mass incarceration epidemic.

Today, Taylor has molded himself into a strong, resilient man who wants to help his community. My organization, The Adolescent Redemption Project, is a new nonprofit taking up Taylor’s cause (and that of others like him) to ask the governor to commute his sentence and give him a second chance at life. This could mean he might be eligible for release in three years.

TARP advocates for justice for the men and women sentenced to die in prison for crimes committed when their brains were not fully developed. We fight to give judges discretion so they may consider the mitigating factors, such as childhood trauma and economic distress, for the offenders they are sentencing.

The truth is, mandatory sentencing laws were created by using racist fears to make citizens think our elected judges were incapable of rendering judgment. This was a trick. The drafters of such laws knew they would primarily affect urban youth and Black and Brown children who now fill our jails unnecessarily.

While Breonna may never get justice, there is still a chance to win it for her father.

Josh Puckett wrote this article for YES! Magazine.

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