When a judge sentenced then-17-year-old Brogan Rafferty to life without parole last year for aggravated murder, she allowed that he had been "dealt a lousy hand in life." Rafferty's mother, Yvette, was a crack addict. His father, Michael, worked the early shift as a machinist. Rafferty was basically left to raise himself, one school counselor said. Along the way, he got mixed up with Richard Beasley, a family friend--and, it was later revealed, a ruthless murderer who convinced the teenager to help him kill three men. To explain their unusual bond, Rafferty's attorneys dropped hints that maybe Beasley had molested Rafferty.
Like most biographies condensed for courtroom drama, this one turned out to leave out much of the nuance and texture of an actual life. I got my first hint of this when I visited Brogan Rafferty's father, Michael, in his small house in a suburb of Akron, Ohio. Michael's walls are decorated with framed pictures of his son--Brogan as a chubby baby holding a ring of plastic keys, as a 10-year-old with a bowl cut beaming under his father's touch.
I asked Michael about a detail from the trial: as young as 5, Brogan ate breakfast alone and got himself ready for school. Michael responded by explaining his single-father reality so tenderly that I figured Brogan's lawyers had painted their picture of an absentee father partly for effect. In my many interviews with him, Michael was honest even when that meant making himself look bad. It was true, he told me, that when Brogan was older and got in trouble at school, Michael would sometimes slam him against a wall, but he added, "I love that kid, and I'll love him as long as I'm on the planet. I love him more than I love myself."