James and Tanya Harley

Prince Frederick, MD – A St. Mary’s County man accused of gunning down his estranged wife in her Lusby home in late April 2017 was given a life sentence Thursday, Aug. 23 in Calvert County Circuit Court. The defendant, James William Harley Jr., 39, pleaded guilty to the first-degree, premeditated murder of Tanya Harley, 34, in May. State prosecutors and Harley’s attorney agreed to the plea deal in order to prevent the couple’s 9-year-old son from having to testify during a trial. The state agreed to amend their motion seeking life without parole to life.

The lengthy Aug. 23 hearing was attended by members of both the defendant’s and victim’s families. There were a few times when the proceedings prompted family members to run out of the courtroom sobbing. Prior to the start of the sentencing hearing, Judge Mark Chandlee asked the gathering to refrain from any emotional outbursts.

Prior to sentencing, James and Tanya Harley’s daughter tearfully declared, “my Mom was the one everyone loved. She had a heart of gold.”

“Two families have been destroyed forever,” Deputy State’s Attorney Kathryn Marsh told the court. Marsh depicted the defendant as obsessed with controlling the victim. At one point during the marriage’s dissolution Tanya Harley had to change her cell phone number three times in one month. James Harley’s texts contained threats. As proof that the killing was premeditated, Marsh noted that Tanya Harley told a family member that her estranged husband would kill her a week before she died. During her remarks, Marsh also read love notes Harley had sent to other women while he was incarcerated. She showed Chandlee pictures of the crime scene that indicated Tanya Harley was trying to run before she was shot three times. Marsh stated that James Harley ran from the house after the shooting, leaving his son behind.

While defense attorney Brendan Callahan conceded that his client’s actions “have harmed everybody in the room,” he added that the impact letters submitted to the court indicate James Harley is “not all bad.” A former work supervisor told the court the defendant was “a fine employee.” Harley’s father stated his son was not a violent person. Callahan called his client “a devoted father” and noted, “it was Mr. Harley’s decision to take this plea to avoid the possibility of putting anybody else through any trauma. He’s trying to atone for something he can never take back.”

During his remarks before sentencing, Harley apologized to members of both families. “It [killing] was not premeditated,” he declared.

“I think everybody agrees, Mr. Harley, that you had a pretty good life,” said Chandlee. “Something went terribly wrong.” While the judge acknowledged that while Tanya Harley’s murder may not have been a calculated plan on the part of the defendant, the act was an “escalation of events. You treated her like property, not someone you loved.” Chandlee also stated he had concerns about the public’s safety if Harley were to be released. Under terms of the sentence, Harley must serve at least 15 years of the life sentence before he is allowed to request a parole hearing.

While Chandlee did revoke the denial of the defendant’s contact with his children, he added that it would be up to the Maryland Department of Corrections and the Calvert County Detention Center to supervise those visitations.

Read previous stories about this case. 

Contact Marty Madden at marty.madden@thebaynet.com