SIOUX FALLS — An Oglala man who killed his abusive, alcoholic father 30 years ago has been allowed another chance at freedom by the South Dakota Board of Pardons & Parole—against the wishes of the man who prosecuted him.
Timothy Sean Caffrey, 47, Martin, was convicted of manslaughter in an adult court and sentenced to life without parole for fatally shooting his non-Indian father with a .25 caliber handgun.
In December 2010, Gov. Mike Rounds, before leaving office, commuted the sentence to 237 years, making Caffrey eligible for parole this month, which has been granted.
He'd been denied a commutation twice before—once by Gov. George Mickelson and once by Gov. Rounds.
Tim Caffrey was 17 when he shot his father twice at close range. He was arrested by police when the story he told them fell apart under questioning.
Caffrey was originally convicted of first-degree murder. When that was overturned on appeal, citing poor interrogation techniques, the prosecutor filed first-degree manslaughter charges. This time the conviction stuck, without a confession.
According to court records, on the day of the shooting, Caffrey called police and told them, and a friend, that he had found his father’s body in the kitchen. But police found his packed clothes, food, his mother’s .25 automatic, and other incriminating evidence in the family car, which he planned to use for his getaway.
William and Olive Caffrey, of Martin, legally adopted Tim Caffrey when he was little more than a toddler. They raised him with two older children of their own. When he entered his teen years, his relationship with an abusive father worsened, especially when his father was drunk, according to witnesses.
As Tim Caffrey got older, his father would get drunk and attack him over his use of alcohol, peji and cigarettes, which he smoked with his friends. Tim would often breakdown crying and apologizing after these episodes.
By the time Tim turned 17, his father was trying to quit drinking, but sobriety was hard to maintain. On the fatal day, the pair were alone and had fought earlier, and the older Caffrey had left to buy more beer, which he hid in the yard because his wife refused to let alcohol in the house. She was away on church business.
As the elder Caffrey approached the house, according to the prosecutor, Tim Caffrey hid behind the kitchen door. When the man entered, the 17-year-old put the .25 caliber to his father’s head and squeezed the trigger. As he fell, Tim fired again, this time hitting a tool in his father’s back pocket.
It was the day that Tim says he overheard his father tell someone he was going to kick him out of his house, and that he was just another “dumb Indian.”
In no time it seemed, Tim Caffrey was headed to the state penitentiary for the rest of his life.
Last week, Tim Caffrey’s proposal for release earned a unanimous endorsement from the full, nine-member parole board.
James Smith, a board member, told Caffrey his actions since his incarceration demonstrated that he was ready for a second chance.
After getting caught, he never denied he committed the crime, Smith said, and he’s carried a clean record, marred only by a few minor infractions, during his 30 years at the state penitentiary. He also earned a GED and a welding certificate in prison.
“You committed a terrible crime, but you've paid a terrible price for it,” Smith said. “In my opinion, you've done enough time.”
But South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long isn’t so sure. He prefers to call him, “Timmie.” He was the Bennett County state’s attorney in 1981, and prosecuted the Caffrey case.
Long contends: “Timmy’s going to kill again if he gets the chance. That’s how psychopaths work.”
Caffrey, told of Long’s remarks, said he is pretty sure Long harbors no personal hostility toward him.
“I just figure he’s doing his job,” he said. But he also looks at the three prisoners from Martin serving manslaughter sentences. The two other Native Americans, George Blue Bird Jr. and Mary Poor Thunder, 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 ACLU, 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.”
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.
Much of these lingering remnants of “concern,” stemmed from the sixties and seventies and later, marked by repeated confrontations between state-federal government and the American Indian Movement (AIM), she said.
In 1973—the year AIM drew national attention to South Dakota by occupying Wounded Knee for 71 days—the state hired a tough-talking new chief prosecutor, who would come to be known in Indian Country as William “Wild Bill” Janklow.
Janklow, with AIM prosecutions under his belt, went on to become a highly outspoken attorney general, and later, won the governor’s mansion while carrying more than 70 percent of the vote, never before or since, equaled.
The approval rating for Native Americans after fire-bombing a public building and rioting in Custer, S.D., was at an all time low.
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.’”
The judge, when contacted, said he did not believe he had any options under the first-degree manslaughter law.
Arnie and Arlene Berkeland of Sioux Falls teared up on hearing the board's decision.
The 84-year-old couple has visited Caffrey nearly 1,500 times in 30 years, and he plans to stay with them when he’s released, until he feels ready for a place of his own.
“It's like liquid joy,” Arlene Berkeland said.
The elderly couple has taken in paroled inmates in the past. Caffrey they’ve known the longest.
“After so many years, it's really no different from one of your own children,” Arnie Berkeland said.
Caffrey said he understood people would be watching him closely to see if he fails, especially so of the attorney general.
“I’ve been given this second chance, and I have to be sure I don’t make any mistakes,” he says.