Tim Caffrey

Victim: William Caffrey 

Age at time of murder: 17 & eight months

Crime location: Martin, South Dakota

Crime date: January 24, 1981

Weapon: .25 automatic pistol

Murder method: Gunshot to the head

Conviction: Guilty plea to first-degree manslaughter after his first-degree murder conviction was overturned

Sentence: Life without parole (LWOP) later reduced to 237 years

Incarceration status: Paroled


Caffrey killed his adoptive father William and stole his money, a crime which he was convicted of. After his first-degree murder conviction was reversed, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He was sentenced to LWOP but his sentence was commuted by Governor Mike Rounds and he was paroled in 2011.

NOVJM Message from 2011

January 2011, thirty years after the 17-year-old shot his adoptive father to death at their Martin, South Dakota home, Tim Caffrey’s life sentence for manslaughter has been commuted to a sentence allowing a parole opportunity. Gov. Mike Rounds last week commuted Caffrey’s life sentence for manslaughter to a term of 237 years, making him eligible for parole this month. The Board of Pardons and Paroles, which has recommended a sentence reduction three times, could release Caffrey in March. Native American activists have campaigned for a lighter sentence for Tim Caffrey for the murder of his step father, William Caffrey, because of the drug and alcohol abuse rampant in the household.

Once again, NOVJL notes that the system can work to correct its own mistakes through the normal case by case avenues of clemency, appeals, and other legal proceedings, wtihout retroactive legislation mandating blanket parole for all cases.

Excerpts from news coverage from Jan. 7, 2007, 3 years before the gubernatorial clemency was announced:

[email protected]

In January 1981, Timothy Caffrey of Martin put a .25-caliber handgun to the side of his father’s head and pulled the trigger. Then he shot him again, stole the dead man’s money and set out to cover up the crime. It was, he concedes, a methodical act, one driven by what he viewed as a father turned irrational by alcohol abuse who wanted to part ways with the son because of Caffrey’s own drug abuse as a teenager.

Twenty-six years later, it remains Caffrey’s defining act.

After having a first-degree murder conviction overturned and subsequently pleading guilty to manslaughter, Caffrey has been serving a sentence of life without parole in the South Dakota State Penitentiary. The state parole board has recommended that the sentence be softened to allow Caffrey to one day get out. But Gov. Mike Rounds – advised by an attorney general who says Caffrey is a cold-blooded killer – has refused the change.

Caffrey has been up against the toughest manslaughter statute in the U.S. and South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long, who was the Bennett County state’s attorney in 1981 and prosecuted Caffrey. Long still contends “Timmy’s going to kill again if he gets the chance. That’s how psychopaths work.”

Advocates who have been drawn to Caffrey’s case over the years are dismayed by that.

In 2003, the parole board said Caffrey’s sentence should be commuted to 100 years. Gov. Mike Rounds did not act for eight months, then finally denied the commutation.

“If they give Timmy parole and the governor approves it and gives him a cut, that’s the way the system works,” Long said. “I understand it. I work in the system. But I won’t be happy if Timmy makes parole.”

Rounds’ spokeswoman, Roxy Everson, says the governor typically does not comment on commutation decisions, but in Caffrey’s case his decision was based on a review of the recommendation and upon comments in Caffrey’s existing case file. She also says Rounds “does not think any statute is necessarily perfect and might always be subject to Legislative review.

While manslaughter can carry a maximum sentence of life without parole, the governor noted it is not a mandatory sentence but rather provides a judge with discretion. The governor does not use different criteria for reviewing commutations and pardon recommendations based upon whether the individual is white or Native American.”

The case illustrates South Dakota’s stringent sentencing for manslaughter. South Dakota and Oklahoma, which features a maximum indeterminate sentence for manslaughter, are the only two states where people convicted of that crime can face life behind bars. Four states have the next longest maximum sentence at 40 years, according to the South Dakota Criminal Code Revision Committee.

Caffrey said he is sure Long holds no personal animosity toward him.

“I just figure he’s doing his job,” he said. But he also looks at the three inmates from Martin serving manslaughter sentences. The two Native Americans are doing life; the one white man is doing 75 years.

“That’s one thing I can’t understand,” Caffrey said.

Jennifer Ring, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas, said part of the reason South Dakota’s manslaughter maximum sentence is so extreme is that “in South Dakota manslaughter includes some offenses that in other states would be considered murder. This is something that needs review.

“The other thing is South Dakota just has very harsh sentences for a lot of things.”

Like Caffrey, Ring sees disparity in the way the statute is applied.

“In my personal opinion, South Dakota white people have a concern about Indian people, and that is fueling a feeling about needing to keep a strong hand on things,” she said.

Long said the manslaughter law “grants the maximum amount of discretion to the judge. There is no state in the union that gives more discretion to the judge in a case of first-degree manslaughter. The judge could have given him probation. He could have said, ‘Your dad’s a drunk and you get to shoot him.’ ”

In 2000, Donald Heck, a Kadoka lawyer and retired circuit judge, who sentenced Caffrey, wrote Berkeland, “My recollection is that the sentence was mandatory, so I had little discretion in the matter.”

Eventually all Caffrey’s efforts to gain parole must come to this: he sits at a table and talks about killing his adoptive father.

“It wasn’t just me shooting my father. It was me messing up my whole family life. It made for a long, hard life for my mom,” he said.

Olive Caffrey forgave him and visited him about once a year in prison before she died, according to Caffrey. But a brother in Arizona and sister in Martin haven’t seen him in years.

“The last time I saw him was maybe eight years ago. I haven’t gone by myself,” said relative Christie Phipps. “I’m sure he’s changed. He was just a child when he went in.”

She and her brother Robert were more than a decade older than Caffrey. Her parents took in foster children, she said. “We got Timmy and they fell in love with him. My mom and dad decided they couldn’t let him go back.”

William Caffrey told his adopted son one day he’d have to choose in large measure to follow the traditions of the Oglala Lakota culture he was born into or the white culture into which he’d been adopted. He said it didn’t matter to him which culture he chose, only that he choose wisely, Caffrey said of his father.

But that image of wise parenting is offset by William Caffrey’s problems with alcohol and his frustration with Tim Caffrey’s use of alcohol and marijuana. It had been boiling up between them for about six months, Caffrey said.

“Two people butting heads, and something’s got to give. I handled the situation the wrong way,” he said.

William Caffrey had sought treatment for alcohol abuse, according to Long.

“Because his father was sober, his father had started taking an interest in Timmy’s scholastic life and in making him go to church,” Long said. “There was a whole bunch of things his recent sobriety had brought upon him.”

On a day when his wife was out of town visiting relatives, William Caffrey found his 17-year-old son’s stash of marijuana, confronted him and after discussing punishment, William Caffrey phoned his minister, Long said.

“Timmy overhears part of this conversation. Bill said to his pastor, ‘I ought to give the kid $50 and throw his ass out of the house,’ ” Long said.

“Then Bill leaves the house. Timmy, of course, knows his father’s habits intimately. He knows his dad is going to go and buy some booze and knows he will hide it in the yard because Timmy’s mother doesn’t allow booze in the house.

“While Timmy’s father is gone, what Timmy does is round up his mother’s .25 automatic pistol. He loads it and hides behind the kitchen door and waits for his father to come home. When Bill hides the beer out in the yard, Timmy’s waiting for him behind the kitchen door. As Bill walks into the house, Timmy lays that .25 next to his father’s ear and squeezes off a round at point blank range.”

As William Caffrey fell, his son shot him a second time, the bullet striking tools he was carrying in his back pocket.

Tim Caffrey recovered one shell casing but the second rolled away under a refrigerator, Long said. Then Caffrey packed food and clothes, took his father’s billfold and the gun and, after driving around town for about half an hour, picked up a friend and said he’d be allowed to stay overnight. But he had to tell his father where he’d be.

Under that pretext, he drove back home with the friend and pretended to discover the body, Long said.

While he was being questioned by police, an officer discovered the gun and other items Caffrey had hidden in the family car. At that point, Caffrey wrote out a confession and took from a pocket the shell casing he’d recovered, Long said.

What would he do if he were out, sister wonders

Caffrey was convicted of first degree murder, but the state Supreme Court ruled 3-2 that his confession had been coerced.

Long said he went ahead with a second trial even without the confession “because frankly I had another piece of evidence that was almost as compelling.”

While he was in the Bennett County jail, Caffrey wrote a letter to the local newspaper, published by Long’s parents.

“In that letter, he explained that his father was a drunk and was mean to him and kind of needed killing. Would the jurors of Bennett County please keep that in mind,” Long said.

Caffrey was represented by Stan Whiting, a court-appointed lawyer from Winner. To avoid the cost of a second murder trial, Long said he gave Caffrey the option to plead guilty to manslaughter.

Caffrey hasn’t given up. “I’m not institutionalized,” he insists.

“I don’t fear parole,” he said. “I would not go out there to mess up.”

His sister is unsure whether he should be paroled.

“He’s been in there so long, I really wonder what he would do if he got out,” Phipps said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with what happened or what he did, just what would he do?”

He isn’t owed anything, Caffrey said. He killed his father. It was his choice. He deserved to go to prison. But the defining event of his life is not the sum of his life, he said.

He hopes people will look at 25 years in the penitentiary, not one day in Martin in 1981. He has, aside from a few missteps, avoided trouble in prison.

“The way I’ve carried myself in this place, maybe I’ve earned a spot,” he said. “Maybe I’ve earned one more chance.”

More information

State v. Caffrey (1983)

This is an appeal from a judgment of conviction for first degree murder. We reverse and remand.

On the evening of January 24, 1981, William Caffrey was shot to death in his home in Martin, South Dakota. His adopted Indian son, the appellant, Timothy Caffrey, who was then seventeen years old, was taken into custody by the sheriff’s department a few hours after the incident. During an interrogation that ran from 12:20 a.m. to 2:58 a.m. on January 25, 1981, appellant ultimately confessed that he had argued with and later shot his father.

Following a hearing, appellant was transferred to adult court, where a jury returned a verdict of guilty to murder in the first degree. Appellant was sentenced to life in the penitentiary.

Appellant contends that the trial court erred in transferring him from juvenile court to adult court. The trial court considered the factors set out in SDCL 26-11-4 for determining whether a juvenile shall be transferred to adult court.[1] In its transfer order, entered following the hearing on the transfer motion, the trial court set forth the reasons for its decision with sufficient specificity to permit meaningful review, see People in Interest of D.M.L., 254 N.W.2d 457 (S.D.1977); People in Interest of L.V.A., 248 N.W.2d 864 (S.D.1976), by way of findings of fact as required by SDCL 26-11-4. Without detailing the evidence presented at the transfer hearing, our review of the record satisfies us that the trial court’s findings in support of its decision to transfer are not clearly erroneous, which is the standard by which such findings are to be reviewed on appeal. SDCL 26-11-4. In reaching this conclusion, we note that appellant, who was born on May 28, 1963, was less than two months short of his eighteenth birthday on the date of the transfer hearing.

Man serving life for manslaughter up for parole

January 4, 2011

SIOUX FALLS — Thirty years after then-17-year-old Tim Caffrey shot his adoptive father to death in their South Dakota home, he is getting a chance at freedom.

Departing Gov. Mike Rounds has commuted Caffrey’s life sentence for manslaughter to 237 years, making him eligible for parole. The Board of Pardons and Paroles could release Caffrey in March, The Argus Leader newspaper reports.

The board in 1991 and 2003 unsuccessfully recommended commutation. Rounds assented last week, three years after the board again suggested he reduce the sentence in the 1981 shooting death of William Caffrey in Martin.

Supporters of Tim Caffrey, a Native American, say he had been tormented by his white father’s verbal and physical abuse and that life without parole is too severe a penalty for the killing.

“He definitely deserved punishment but not a life sentence,” said Arnie Berkeland, a retired Sioux Falls businessman who long has advocated for Caffrey’s release and has visited him in prison hundreds of times. Berkeland told the Argus Leader that he and his wife have agreed to take Caffrey into their home if he is released.

Judge Larry Long, who prosecuted Caffrey in 1981 when Long was Bennett County’s state’s attorney, has said Caffrey is a psychopath who will kill again if released.

A two-member parole board panel is to hear from Caffrey on Feb. 9. If the panel recommends parole, the full board will consider the matter in March, board Executive Director Ed Ligtenberg said.

Nearly 40 years after SD changed sentencing law, dozens serving 100-plus for manslaughter

Ellen Bardash Forum News Service September 5, 2019

Pleas and parole

Arnie Berkeland didn’t know Timothy Caffrey before 1981, when Caffrey was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree manslaughter after killing his stepfather at age 17. That didn’t stop him from visiting the South Dakota State Penitentiary throughout the 30 years it took to commute Caffrey’s sentence.

Berkeland isn’t a lawyer — his background is in trucking. His involvement with inmates began in the late ’70s, when he volunteered to transport inmates to and from a prison farm. He said he took an interest in Caffrey’s case because Caffrey had accepted a plea bargain that reduced his charge from murder to manslaughter, but didn’t reduce what was then a life sentence.

“I, of course, am an advocate for shorter sentences,” Berkeland said. “I’m not a bleeding heart or whatever. I do believe in punishment, but I believe in just punishment, and South Dakota is a little bit bad for that. They tend to mete out long sentences for a lot of different things.”

Caffrey is not alone in pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter. Since 1989, 85% of those convicted of the charge in South Dakota entered guilty pleas rather than going to trial.

When the state and defense reach a plea agreement, Hansman said, South Dakota judges are required to indicate whether they’re going to agree to the sentencing cap in the agreement. At trial, where there are no plea bargains and no sentence caps, there’s a greater chance of a longer sentence being imposed.

After 10 years of working on Caffrey’s case with the assistance of attorney Ron Volesky and multiple commutation denials, Berkeland said he was nearly ready to give up when he found a woman in Idaho who could speak to the parole board about Caffrey’s home life. Caffrey’s sentence was commuted to 237 years, and he was paroled in 2011.