Kate Rodeman sat among friends and family as the letter she wrote to the man who killed her husband was read to a courtroom full of people.
“When you killed my husband, you turned my life into pure chaos,” said Justin Conklin, the Lansing firefighter who read the letter on her behalf. “His death did not only break my heart, it broke all of me and more. You stole our future, the life we could have had.”
Grant Taylor, 24, sat about 20 feet from Conklin and looked down at the table in front of him as Conklin continued to read.
Minutes later, Taylor simply said “no, sir” when Circuit Court Judge Clinton Canady III asked him if he wanted to say anything. And moments after that, Canady sentenced Taylor to 30 to 40 years in prison for killing Lansing firefighter Dennis Rodeman in September 2015, when Rodeman was among a handful of firefighters who were collecting donations for charity.
It’s a sentence Rodeman’s father, Max, thought was too lenient, according a letter Kelly Flory, Dennis Rodeman’s sister, read on his behalf.
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Kelly Flory, sister of firefighter Dennis Rodeman, speaks during the sentencing for Grant Taylor.Christopher Haxel/Lansing State Journal
“In my opinion you should have to sit in a cell the size of a coffin and think about your life, where my son is for eternity, never to play with his son,” Flory read. “I will never think 30 years is enough for what you have done to my grandson’s family and mom.”
Then, Flory addressed Taylor herself, often looking at him.
“Coward,” she said. “That is how I refer to you. I can’t bring myself to call you by your name. … So as you sit in your cell every day for at least the next 30 years, which I don’t feel is long enough, and you see your family on regular visits, just remember, we can’t see my brother.
“I feel like you got to choose your punishment and my brother never got to choose how long he’d be alive.”
Taylor, a graduate of Holt High School and a former Michigan State University student, pleaded guilty but mentally ill last month to second-degree murder and other charges as part of a plea deal with prosecutors. He had faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of first-degree murder at trial.
The deal set his minimum sentence at 30 years in prison, but didn’t set a maximum. Prosecutors asked for maximum sentence of 50 years, but Canady went along with the probation department’s guidelines.
Prosecutors said last month after a hearing on the the plea that they met with Rodeman’s family to discuss the agreement before it was offered.
“This was the kind of case where you have a tragedy, you have an immeasurable loss, and there are really no easy answers that make sense, in how the justice system can respond,” Ingham County Prosecutor Carol Siemon said in a statement last month.
“We can never truly find justice or ‘closure’ in a case like this, but I believe we do have an approach that allows for mental health treatment, within the secure walls of the prison system, a lengthy sentence that acknowledges the gravity of this offense, and the impact on the victim and his family.”
Siemon didn’t return a message seeking comment after the hearing.
During the hearing, Taylor’s attorney, Stacia Buchanan, discussed her client’s mental health.
“He did not choose this life for himself,” she said. “His mother did not choose this life for him. He was not raised to have this life. Unfortunately, mental illness is a disease like other physical diseases. Up until then Mr. Taylor was a good student, he was going to university, he had a good family. And everything changed for him.”
Taylor’s mother, Karen Cook Taylor, declined to comment after the hearing.
“It’s a hard day,” Buchanan said after the hearing. She declined to comment further.
Taylor will receive credit for two years already served in jail, so he could be eligible for parole in 28 years. He also pleaded guilty to failure to stop at the scene of an accident resulting in death and fleeing from police, and will serve sentences on those charges concurrently.
In September 2015, Rodeman, 35, was with a handful of other firefighters who were collecting donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association at the intersection of Cedar Street and Jolly Road. Police have said that Taylor was driving in the area, became angered with the traffic backup from the fundraiser and exchanged words with Rodeman before throwing an apple core at the firefighter and driving away.
Taylor drove about a mile south, according to court records, before turning around and diving back toward the intersection. Taylor drove at one firefighter, who jumped out of the way, before striking Rodeman, according to testimony. Rodeman later died at a local hospital.
Police have said that Taylor admitted to hitting Rodeman with his truck. He fled the scene and was arrested a short time later near his home, according to court records.
Taylor’s plea came despite ongoing questions about his mental health. His mother twice petitioned to have him involuntarily hospitalized in the years before the crash, saying he had not been taking his medicine and was behaving erratically.
Within two weeks of Rodeman’s death, Buchanan asked that Taylor’s competency to stand trial be evaluated. While he was initially found competent, Buchanan requested a second evaluation about seven months later, in April, 2016.
Competency means a defendant understands the various roles of the judge, attorneys and jury and is able to help with his or her own defense.
Two months after approving Buchanan’s second request, Canady declared Taylor incompetent to stand trial based on the recommendation of the state’s Center for Forensic Psychiatry.
Taylor was returned to competency in June of this year, but remained housed at the forensic center to ensure his competency for trial.
Because he pleaded guilty but mentally ill, Taylor will receive mental health treatment while in prison. He will not return to the forensic center, however, unless the Michigan Department of Corrections requests help housing Taylor. Officials have said that is unlikely.
‘Strength and courage’
Rodeman, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq, also worked for the Vermontville Fire Department before joining Lansing’s department.
Firefighters from both departments attended many of Taylor’s hearings as the case progressed through the court system.
During Thursday’s hearing the courtroom was so full that a few people had to sit in the jury box.