On Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, Lillie Richardson waited all night for Josh to come home. Her son had gone to a party at the Columbus, Miss., fairgrounds. The parties were in a one-room building behind a collection of empty fields. Though she worried the venue didn’t have enough lighting or security, Lillie knew it was unreasonable to expect her 24-year-old son to stay at home on a Friday night. Josh constantly complained about how boring Columbus was. How could she expect him to miss a rare opportunity to have fun like a normal young adult?
She immediately panicked when she woke up the next morning and realized Josh hadn’t come home. She started calling his friends. One of them told her that someone had shot Tevin Harris early that morning, and he was at the hospital. She kept dialing the phone and getting pieces of information like she was putting a puzzle together. The worst clue came when she found out Josh had been with Tevin right before the shooting. She sent Josh’s brother, Caleb, to look for Josh where people had seen him last.
By the time Caleb found Josh’s body, Lillie already feared the worst. Josh was laid out behind a brick four-unit housing project. The back of his white t-shirt was stained full of dark red blood. His face was a grayish pale, as if all the color from it had drained out with the blood on the t-shirt.
‘Almost Made her Faint on the Spot’
Three days after the murder on Sept. 9, Lillie heard on the news that police had arrested Quinton Erby for Josh’s murder. She immediately broke down. Her family had to carry her to the bed where she cried herself to sleep. When she woke up, she had only one feeling: anger. And she was determined to use that anger to get justice for her son.
Lillie was surprised when she didn’t hear from anyone about the case for several months. Finally, she received a letter requesting the family to meet with the district attorney’s office (before my election to the position in 2015). At the meeting, a woman explained to them the legal process and their rights as a victim. They weren’t told anything about the case except that the police hadn’t found the gun, and the boys involved in the murder had “stayed in trouble all the time.”
When the woman asked them to make a recommendation for punishment, Lillie reflexively wrote “life without parole.”
As the years went by, and nothing happened with the case, Lillie tried to remain patient. She felt a mixture of excitement and anxiety when her husband said my office had requested a meeting after I took over the district attorney’s job for Mississippi’s 16th district, serving Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Clay and Noxubee counties. Josh’s mother sat quietly at the meeting until I asked if anyone had ever gone over the evidence with them. She quickly said, “No.” She would later tell me that what I explained “almost made her faint on the spot.”
What Happened That Night
Despite all the people at the shooting, the case came down to two witnesses with conflicting stories about who killed Josh. The first witness, Tevin Harris, said he and Josh had been recently “beefing” with Quinton Erby. As a result of these conflicts, when he saw Quinton at the fairgrounds that night, Tevin didn’t shake his hand, which upset and embarrassed Quinton. This had almost led to a fight at the party, but people were able to separate them before anything happened. Before they all left the fairgrounds, Tevin said, he and Quinton had briefly talked and “squashed” the conflict between them.
Before Tevin left, though, a female friend asked if he could drive her home because she was too drunk to drive herself. Josh and another friend agreed to follow Tevin in his car as he dropped her off. When they got to her house, Tevin said a group of people from the party were hanging out in the neighborhood as an afterparty.
As soon as Tevin noticed Quinton Erby with this group, he knew there might be a misunderstanding as to what he and Josh were doing there. When the group started walking toward him, he noticed a few had guns, so he asked his cousin for the gun in his vehicle to potentially defend himself.
Before he could get it, though, a hectic scene broke out where someone came out of nowhere with a shirt covering his face and shot Tevin twice. He then saw Josh running and heard two more shots behind him. Tevin told police the person who shot him looked like they had the same “body type” as Kirby Erby, Quinton’s brother, but he didn’t see his face. He didn’t see who shot Josh.
The other witness, whose identity is concealed, admitted he was with Quinton and the others the night of the shooting. He didn’t recall Kirby Erby being there, though, and could say Quinton had a gun that night but couldn’t verify he was the shooter because the person who started shooting had a t-shirt covering most of his face. There were shell casings found from one gun on the scene. Other than that, there was no physical evidence.
‘My Mama Know Love’
After the meeting, Lillie slowly stopped thinking about the case. She tried to think more about Josh instead. She remembered what it felt like to hear him talk for the first time or his wide smile when he jumped up and down their bed. She remembered the tears the first time she dropped him off at daycare or his excitement to go to peewee football practice.
She replaced the image of Josh dying alone in the back of a project with his high school graduation picture. He had looked so distinguished with his head held high in his purple and gold cap and gown. She often visited his Facebook page and found comfort in the post Josh made approximately five months before his murder: “Sometimes I feel like giving up then I talk to my ma and she tell me everything gne aight and for some reason I always believe her and everything jst seems so much better….My mama know love.” (sic)
Lillie hadn’t thought about the case for months when, in spring 2018, her husband told her out of nowhere that the DA had news. I told them Quinton Erby admitted to shooting Josh Richardson. Quinton said he had done it in the heat of passion after he saw Tevin go for a gun. He thought Josh was running toward him when he shot wildly at him. Erby was willing to plead guilty to 20 years for manslaughter.
Surprisingly, Lillie wasn’t disappointed when I said the State should consider accepting this plea based on the conflicting statements and evidence that Tevin did ask for a gun just prior to the shooting. She talked about “the chance to have it over, the chance to move on from the worst part of Josh’s life.”
When her husband said he would leave the decision up to her, she surprised herself when she quickly said, “We should accept it and move on.” She told everyone “she didn’t even want to go to the sentencing. She would let her husband watch “Quinton admit he killed our son.”
‘Who Was She Not to Forgive and Love Quinton?
The first time Lillie thought about Quinton other than as her son’s murderer was when her husband told her he had briefly talked to him after the sentencing. Quinton had apologized for killing Josh and said he often thought about how he had not only taken Josh’s life but had also stolen him from his family. Her husband had even shaken Quinton’s hand after the apology.
Lillie wondered for the first time: Could she forgive her son’s murderer? Since Josh’s death, she had relied on her relationship with God more than ever. In her darkest moments, she had prayed for strength, and God had pulled her through. As the months went by, Quinton’s apology floated around her head like a fly that wouldn’t be swatted. Eventually, she asked herself the toughest question any Christian can: What would Jesus do?
At first, Lillie decided to pray for Quinton. After each prayer, though, as she found herself closer and closer to forgiveness, she also realized forgiveness wasn’t enough. Wasn’t she commanded to love her neighbor as God had loved her? Hadn’t God loved her enough to sacrifice his only begotten son? Hadn’t Job trusted God enough to accept the death of his entire family and the loss of all his earthly belongings? Who was she not to trust God now? Who was she not to forgive and love Quinton?
In early 2020, six years after her son’s murder, Lillie decided the only way she could know she had truly forgiven Quinton was to support him while he was in prison. She decided to write him a letter letting him know she wanted a relationship with him. She told him for all practical purposes, both families had “lost a son.” She encouraged him to maintain a relationship with his child, reminded him “how much his child needed him.” Most of all, she wanted him to know she prayed for him and loved him.
Lillie didn’t expect a response, but Quinton wrote her back immediately. He told her how much he thought about Josh and his memories of him from childhood. He knew Josh came from a good family and often wondered what they thought of him. After he didn’t see her at the sentencing, he assumed she hated him too much to see his face. He thought he would have to live with that hate forever. He was, therefore, shocked to receive her letter.
After reading the letter, Lillie felt a peace she hadn’t felt since Josh left for the party that night. She knew Josh was with her forever. The years had taught her she would never lose her memories of him. She also felt closer to God, closer to his love.
The feeling was so powerful, so joyful that her first thought was to write Quinton back. She wanted to tell him to “stay away from the violence in prison” and behave well so he could have a “better chance at parole.” More than anything, she wanted to explain to him how his life and story could be a beacon of light for other young men to avoid his mistakes. How something good could come out of all of the pain and loss of her son.
Lillie Richardson gave District Attorney Scott Colom permission to tell her family’s story for the Mississippi Free Press.
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