The biggest job of my life, a trial for which our family had waited 18 months, was about to begin. My job was to defend my son, Christopher, because he could not be here to defend himself. The perpetrator was alive and would be in the courtroom. I felt that he had an advantage.
Two weeks before the trial started, a new District Attorney was assigned. Andrew Sweet turned out to be smart and kind, but we had no way of knowing that at the time. The legal system is not user friendly; attorneys changed dates and neglected to notify us. A Judge had granted Christopher’s killer, Mark James Taylor, bail in the summer of 1996 and did not inform us. When we found out by chance, it felt like the murder had happened all over again.
I knew a routine would help stabilize me during the trial. I rose early and had a good breakfast with my family, before heading out. Throughout, I took vitamins and minerals daily to make sure my body and immune system were as strong as possible. Also, I decided not to have any alcohol throughout the trial.
I cautioned my family and friends about “court manners and dress,” aware that any little indiscretion can lead to an appeal or mistrial. We all dressed professionally and avoided even glancing toward the perpetrator, his family and friends.
The trial was held in Superior Court of the State of California, in Oakland, with Honorable Judge Joseph Hurley presiding, during the BART strike, which added yet another stress to our lives. It meant we had to add at least an hour to our daily commute.
Jury selection, done by questionnaire, took two days. The opening statements were made by attorneys, and then we were witness to, as I came to think of it, “everything you don’t want to know about murder.” Everything ended up in the details: the bullet path, the positions of the murderer and the victim, what was in the apartment and what words were used.
During the proceedings I felt I had to put on a huge spacesuit to protect me from the intense emotions. I needed to suspend my grief and work on the business of the trial. We had to walk into the courtroom every day along with my son’s murderer, and his family. We had to use the same bathrooms outside the courtroom, and not go in if he or his family were in there. We also needed to make sure they were not having lunch in the same restaurant, and if they were, we would all leave and go somewhere else.
The first day of the trial was surreal. I felt numbed by everything I listened to. It seemed I was outside of myself, seeing at a distance what was happening. I believe I had separated from my emotions, so I would make it through. I had decided to think of the trial as if it were a job, like a huge presentation, so I was able to keep a clear head for the proceedings.
I was not prepared for the life- size photos (which were up for days) of my son being worked on by paramedics. At first I averted my eyes because I wanted to remember Christopher’s warm smiling body. Finally, not looking used too much energy, so I gave in and lived with the horrible images.
Judge Hurley’s courtroom was focused on crime and the business of the crime and trial procedures. His fairness and ethics gave us a sense that whatever the outcome, the legal system was honorable.
The spacesuit couldn’t protect me throughtout the trial. It is hard to hear the murder of your child pulled apart detail by detail. Every little speck of evidence was argued over and over again. I had to listen to a whole day dedicated to where the furniture was located in the apartment. There was another day diagramming Christopher and Mark’s location every second of the crime.
I knew from the detective who worked on the case that we were some of the “lucky one’s.” We had a murderer; he had called 911 and said “I shot my roommate.” Many families never know who killed their loved ones. I knew Mark James Taylor was guilty; the big question was to what degree in the eyes of the law. My worry was that something might go wrong and he would be set free. I wanted full justice for the grave injustice our family was enduring every day because he had killed Christopher.
We were also very fortunate to have family and friends in the courtroom. Twenty to thirty people showed up everyday; each one who walked in the courtroom door helped our family through this terrible time. My “mother on earth” (my biological mother passed many years ago) gave me a lucky ring to wear for the trial – I would turn it round and round when I needed to concentrate on something else for a few seconds. One day a woman who knew me from The Compassionate Friends group came in with her two children in a stroller. She brought a stuffed giraffe for me. When the children got wiggly, the bailiff made them leave but, it was so heartwarming to see her and the children. I welcomed every drop of goodness.
For the five weeks of the trial, the rest of my life was suspended. Every day, all we did was eat, commute, sit in trial, come home, call family and friends, eat and sleep. I had one dear attorney friend I could call if I had questions, and a friend from Justice for Murder Victims and I spoke every day, On the weekends we rested, tackled laundry, shopping and house cleaning which seemed impossible during the week. Any energy we had left was used to spend time with precious family and friends.
When the jury went out for deliberations, a juror mentioned that he had mapped out the crime scene in his home, and then reenacted it with the help of his wife. He wanted to show the other jurors just how the murder had been committed. The next day he returned to the courthouse with all his drawings and a toy gun. He did not make it through security and was taken up to the courthouse holding cell, where Judge Hurley went up to get him. The juror had wanted to convince his fellow jurors it was first degree murder. Instead, the judge excused him and he was replaced by the alternate juror, who had been present during the trial. Although I was stressed by the event, I was touched he cared so much.
Waiting for the verdict was very difficult. We could only be 20 minutes from the courthouse, so we rented a hotel suite for people to gather with us and also spent time at our daughters’ house, which was close. It had been difficult to read the jurors and we had no idea how they felt individually or collectively. Time went slowly; we couldn’t concentrate on anything but the outcome. We wondered, is it better for the verdict if we wait for a long time, or better if it’s short?
Finally we had a verdict: Mark James Taylor was convicted of second-degree murder. As the verdict was read, the murderer’s mother, who was seated behind him, watched as he reached into his suit jacket pocket, and then drank a hotel sized shampoo bottle of liquid. When she saw my stunned face, she said: “It is antifreeze; he would rather die than go to jail.”
I was not only shocked at this action, but in horror that his mother knowingly watched. I knew that I could never watch my son drink poison. I birthed him and could not watch him kill himself. The murderer was rushed to the hospital and treated for poisoning. He survived and was taken to prison.
I felt the verdict was fair, considering the laws in place at the time of the crime. Since that time, using a handgun in the commission of a crime warrants a longer sentence. Nothing could bring back my son, Christopher – everything else is a compromise.
With the verdict in, the ordeal was not yet over. The sentencing was scheduled for six weeks later. That would be the only time our family could speak to the court and to the perpetrator. To prepare for the sentencing, the District Attorney, Andrew Sweet, told me it would help our case if we wrote letters to the judge asking “for the maximum sentence allowed by law.” I called and emailed everyone I knew, and some I didn’t. As a result, the judge received more than three hundred letters, more letters, he told me than he had received for all his cases combined over 25 years.
The six weeks seemed to go very slowly, with the sentence looming over us. The family buzzed with anticipation, while people from out of town were making plans to come to support us. I just wanted it OVER!
Over 100 of our friends and family packed “our side” of the courtroom for the sentencing. I read a personal statement, as did Christina, my brother Paul and my father, Gerd. While I was reading, the only sound I heard besides my voice was sobs from behind me in the court gallery.
Statement I read in court
“Standing here today in this court room discussing the murder of my son, Christopher, the entire tragedy seems unreal. This is every parent’s worst nightmare and should not have happened. The first bullet did not kill my son, and Mark James Taylor kept shooting. Mark James Taylor still kept shooting, and even two bullets were not fatal. Mark James Taylor shot four bullets from his gun and three hit my son, Christopher Robin Hotchkiss. One was fatal. If Mark James Taylor had any restraint or compassion, I would still have my son alive. Mark James Taylor did nothing to help or comfort my son and even delayed calling 911. The trial was perhaps more painful than the death. I was in deep shock learning of Christopher’s murder. I was in deep shock for months and still would like to wake up and have it be a bad dream. During the trial, I was made aware of the explicit details and pictures and they were incredibly painful. To be exposed to these cruel facts of murder was revolting and the reality of the crime scene in the courtroom incredibly difficult. It was everything I did not want to know about my son’s murder. Some relief did come from the nightmare, when Mark James Taylor was convicted of murdering my son. It was not an accident; Mark James Taylor meant to kill Christopher. Thanks to 12 jurors, a diligent district attorney, and a fair and articulate judge, justice was served. But, justice will not bring back the life of my son.
“When my son Christopher went to college in January 1996, I was a proud mother and we were a very proud family. Christopher was so excited. He wanted to learn climate control, because he wanted to make people comfortable in their homes. We arranged everything so Christopher would be as sheltered and cozy as possible in his shared apartment. I told Mark James Taylor I would do whatever I could to make them both more comfortable. We wanted Christopher to be able to concentrate on his schooling. I had concerns about his welfare, like any mother. Would he eat right? Who would do his laundry? Murder was not one of these concerns. When I heard that his roommate, Mark James Taylor, was an older man, the positive person that I am, thought that would be a good influence for Christopher. I felt that he would have a mentor. How terribly, terribly wrong I was! Mark James Taylor is a murderer. My son came home from school dead, shot to death by Mark James Taylor. Mark James Taylor testified that the reason he was upset that day was “Christopher put some dishes in his food cabinet and called him ‘fat’”. Who can imagine getting so angry over such a remark that he would be tempted to take a life!
“My life, the life of my family’, friends and anyone who knows us, has changed forever. No longer will any of us be as trusting of a stranger; instead we will always be overprotective of anyone we love and we will always be victims. Victimized by the murder of a young person we all loved and planned on being with for many years. A young person that was just beginning to bloom into adulthood, a young man who embraced life and was looking forward to his rightful balance of years.
“Mark James Taylor took from all of us. A stranger asked me for directions the other day at the grocery store, and as he pulled his map out of a canvas bag, I thought, “It might be a gun.” I am sickened to have such fears. I want to be strong and brave again.
“It is not in the natural order of things to outlive your child. I will never be comfortable with that knowledge. I will always feel that loss in happy times. I cannot share my joys or sorrows ever again with my son Christopher. My daughter Christina’s pain has been one of the most difficult parts of Christopher’s death. As a mother, you want to protect your children, keep them safe and healthy and be able to take away their pain. I also lost a brother many years ago and I know the feelings. This time we are all in pain. A kiss does not make it better. A kiss will never make it better. The pain of losing Christopher will always be with us. Not only have I lost a son and all the joy he brought my life, the possibility of grandchildren, but my daughter will not have a proud brother at her wedding, the best uncle that anyone could want for her children, and all the other joys and experiences we would all be having together as family and friends. Christopher made a love bond between people. His friends tell me that Christopher was always there for them. They knew they could count on him. Mark James Taylor took away the life of their friend by shooting him to death.
“It is very difficult for me to write about the pain my heart and soul will always endure because of Christopher’s murder. Every day, there is a hurdle to cross. I will never finish the family photo album; he will never graduate, get married or have children. How can all these chapters be over?
“A wise friend said to me “You need to find a place to pour out the love for your son.” The love for my son was special for him and cannot be replaced. There is a huge void in my heart and in the hearts of those who knew Christopher.
“The court never had a chance to see the person my son was. The cruel facts of murder left out all his wonderful qualities. He had gorgeous green eyes, a warm smile, and gave the best hugs. Christopher was a social, loving and generous soul. He was the kind of boy who always brought children home to our house. He knew they needed love food, friendship, and a safe place to be until their parents got home. He felt a human responsibility to reach out to others and he did reach out consistently. I always thought he would end up working with children because they all immediately loved him.
“I don’t have a problem with where my son is: in heaven. I have a real problem with the way he got there, murder; and he was much too young. I will spend the rest of my life working to make this world safer from people like Mark James Taylor, who have no regard for human life. If I can feel that I have saved one person from death, and one parent from grief, I will feel accomplished. Christopher can rest in peace. We need compassionate people in our world, and Mark James Taylor does not know the meaning of that word. His actions speak volumes about the kind of human being he was and still is. Some good must come out of this tragic nightmare because nothing can bring back my son. I pledge charity to help perpetuate ideas that were important to him.
“I have been so involved in the team effort of justice for the last year and a half that I truly believe I am just now starting to grieve fully. I don’t even know what I can and should do. I know I am a very strong person, but lately I feel lost in a sea of emotions, and I do not know how to steer the boat. Now, I need to concentrate on myself and my family. I can do that with Mark James Taylor in custody and when he is not a threat to anyone else. My partner, family, and friends, have all stood by me through everything and they always will. We were a close family, but this experience has taught us how important family is. People took time out of their busy lives to support me, the prosecution, and justice in the courtroom. It was important to me that I defend my son, Christopher Robin Hotchkiss, because he could not. Mark James Taylor is still living and breathing.
“I will end here, but these feelings have no end. My heart will always pine for my son. I can only hug him in my dreams.
“I would respectfully request Judge Hurley to sentence Mark James Taylor to state prison for the maximum allowed by law for this heinous crime. I would also request any restitution go directly to the Victims Assistance Fund. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the court, Judge Hurley and his staff, the district attorney, Andrew Sweet, and all my family and friends. I know justice is a team effort.
I respectfully ask the court to put this document in the permanent file. Thank you.”
I was emotionally drained after reading my statement. A courtroom was an awful place to be speaking about an awful crime with a tragic result.
The perpetrator, Mark James Taylor, was sentenced to 19 years to life. (The sentence is indeterminate and the courts will decide if and when he may be considered for release) When Mark Taylor was asked by the judge if he wanted to say anything to our family, he replied “I just wanted to express my sorrow at the terrible tragedy here that I inflicted upon Chris’s family and my family. And if I could turn back the clock and undo it, I would, but that’s all I wanted to say.”
Judge Joseph Hurley’s closing statement.
“While my heart goes out to those who have suffered this loss, I do not sentence someone with my heart. I will follow the law. I do share from my own experiences. I have some understanding and sympathy but not empathy because it’s not happened to me. I have seen someone lose a child. I watched my father die a lingering death, and he was the only child of my grandparents who also watched that.
“I don’t think there is anything here that will necessarily give closure to people. That’s going to be something each individual has to work out.
“I don’t see this as a cold blood killing. As murderers go, I don’t see you as dangerous as most I have faced, that I have seen, that I have sentenced. You have lived most your life clearly in accord with the minimal rules society imposes in our penal codes and other codes.
“Your lack of remorse goes beyond what I am used to. I have had hardened criminals who clearly because of the lifestyle they have chosen, because of affiliation with gangs or whatever, have chosen to ignore all the rules of civil society. You have not that. You have accepted the values of society and I believe taken the level of selfishness and arrogance a step further because you then lie to yourself so that your conduct doesn’t have to bear on reality. Your conduct is such that you simply remember in a way that you think justifies in everybody’s eyes what you did. Before you told things that were not true to the jury, you convinced yourself of them.
“You compound that with an ounce of anti-freeze, that scene, because you weren’t going to accept a jury of your peers telling you, you did something you shouldn’t do.
“That shows a lack of remorse and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for your actions as complete and damable as I’ve had in front of me, as any murdered I’ve had in front of me.
“When you tell me you were murdered by Andy Sweet (in a letter to the judge) and 12 accomplices, meaning the jurors, you can say to me now you’re sorry, and I am sure at some level you’re sorry, you wish you weren’t going to be punished, but that is not the remorse and the sorrow you’re going to have to develop if you are ever going to be rehabilitated, and you are as far way from that as any person I have ever had to sentence.
“Jurors were nobody’s accomplice. You will not face the reality of what you did. You will not face the evil of what you did. That does not make you truly evil. It may make incredibly selfish, incredibly arrogant, and at some level completely ignorant of your own actions.
“If you want to go to prison with the state of mind this is all unfair and unjust, then you can do that. That will make prison that much more difficult for you, and there’s a lot of people here that won’t be bothered by that. That is one of the main reasons I thought I would put your words out in front of you so that they would know that you are creating your own hell by your continued attitude. And every time you’re there and you hear how somebody else wants to justify why they shouldn’t be there and you see through the shallowness of that, and it will be easy to do, go look in the mirror.
“You were convicted of second degree murder. You are sentenced to the term of 15 years to life. You were found to have committed that crime with the use of a firearm. I have and do choose the midterm. That makes the sentence actually 19 to life.
“If parole is granted, you should be informed that it may be parole for life. There’s no limit on the number of years you can be on parole if and when you are ever released.”
After the judge read his statement, a wave of us exited the courtroom. We felt justice had been served. It is hard to be happy in such an unbelievable situation; it was not a cause for celebration. But it was over and we were relieved to be getting back to our lives. Nothing would ever be the same but we did not have to hold off our living anymore while we were waiting for the trial, which has been a five week slow-motion nightmare. It was time to get back to life and look forward.
A month later, a young reporter who had covered the trial called me. He said he had received a letter from the murderer’s mother accusing me of “taking (her) son from (her) and that (she) would not be able to spend Christmas with him.” He wanted to know if I had a comment. “Yes. I have already spent two Christmases without the possibility of seeing my son. She can at least visit her son and she should be thankful for that.”