Board recommends commutation for convicted killer in ’82 murder of Dover liquor store owner

DOVER — A man serving life in prison without parole for the 1982 robbery and murder of a Dover liquor store owner should have his sentence commuted and be made immediately eligible for parole, Delaware’s Board of Pardons ruled Thursday.

The recommendation came after board members heard from Tyrone R. Baxter, his supporters and the son of murder victim James E. Feeley.

The recommendation now goes to Democratic Gov. John Carney, who led the pardons board more than a decade ago as lieutenant governor. Even if Carney grants commutation, Baxter would still have to go through the parole process.

The request marks Baxter’s third attempt at commutation. The board voted to recommend commutation in 2013, but then-Gov. Jack Markell denied the application.

Attorney Adam Windett said Thursday that Baxter is remorseful, has accepted responsibility for his crime and has become a role model and mentor for other prisoners.

“He’s done just about everything one could do in a correctional facility in terms of rehabilitation,” Windett said. “He’s no longer a threat to the community.”

Baxter pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole in exchange for testifying against co-defendant James Riley. Riley’s death sentence was overturned by a federal appeals court in 2001. He was sentenced to life in prison after a retrial.

According to court records, Baxter and Riley planned the robbery and enlisted a third man, Michael Williams, to drive them to the liquor store. Riley placed a bottle of beer on the counter. When Feeley, 59, opened the cash register, Riley drew a pistol and took about $150 from the register. At Baxter’s urging, Riley shot Feeley in the leg after Feeley resisted Riley’s attempt to take his wallet. As the two thieves were leaving, Feeley threw a wine bottle at Riley, who then shot Feeley in the chest at close range.

Feeley was killed a year after his wife, a teacher at a local Catholic school, had died of cancer. His death left the couple’s four children, ranging in age from 10 to 20, parentless, a fact not lost on Baxter.

“I grew up without a father, and that was hard,” Baxter said. “My father was never there for me, and to think that I was a part of their father being taken from them …”

Feeley’s eldest son, James E. Feeley Jr., known as Jef, told board members that he did not oppose Baxter’s request for commutation, unlike his two younger brothers. He recalled how the local newspaper referred to the family after the shooting as the “Feeley Orphans,” which he said was “an accurate but painful description.”

Feeley noted that Baxter was not the shooter, and that Baxter, who wants to become a substance abuse counselor, has had a clean disciplinary record in prison and worked to rehabilitate himself. Feeley also noted that his Catholic faith has taught him that all people are sinners, and “we have to learn to forgive each other.”

“For more than 20 years, I carried bad feelings for both Mr. Baxter and Mr. Riley in my heart. But I’ve come to learn that such hate will eat you up.”

But Feeley also read a statement in which his brother Steve urged board members to deny Baxter’s request.

“His actions, simply, sentenced my siblings and me to a lifetime without a place called ‘home’ or a touch point to our past,” the statement read. “Allowing him to return to a normal life and put the thoughts of my father and his children permanently out of his mind, while my family continues to cope with the damage that his actions produced is not only unfair, it’s unjust.”

The attorney general’s office opposed Baxter’s pardon request, noting the split among Feeley family members.

Pardons board member Andre Bouchard, head of Delaware’s Court of Chancery, abstained from participating in Baxter’s case. Jef Feeley, a reporter for Bloomberg, frequently covers corporate disputes in Chancery Court.

After the board’s ruling, Baxter turned to Feeley to thank him for his forgiveness.

“Your life is definitely a very different life because of the crimes I committed against your father, and I am so sorry,” he said.

Randall Chase writes for the Associated Press

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.

Facebook Comment