Man pleads guilty in music teacher's killing to spare his life

State Attorney's Office had sought death penalty against Adam Lawson

By Scott Johnson - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - An ex-convict charged with murder in the March 2017 home-invasion killing of beloved Jacksonville music teacher Deborah Liles pleaded guilty Thursday in exchange for life in prison.

State Attorney Melissa Nelson had announced plans to seek the death penalty for Adam Lawson. 

Lawson changed his plea to guilty on the four charges he was facing: first-degree murder, armed burglary, grand theft auto and possession of a firearm by a felon.

He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder and for the armed burglary, and he got five years for the grand theft charge and 15 years for the firearms charge. The sentences will run concurrently, and Lawson can appeal.

Liles' family signed off on the deal and was in court for the hearing, where they delivered victim-impact statements as Lawson plugged his ears. 

“How convenient that he doesn’t have to look at what he did to a human being. He did not just kill my mom; he slaughtered her. He destroyed her,” said Liles' daughter, Michelle McFatter.

He lowered his head whenever Liles' face was shown in court and sat almost shivering for roughly an hour as her loved ones recounted the day Lawson broke into her Northside home and beat her to death with a golf club and a frying pan.

“If we went to trial and Adam Lawson was sentenced to death, it would still not be close to justice, because the state is never going to end his life the way he ended my mother’s,” McFatter said. “What he is being offered today is mercy.”

The family also showed a video they had made of Liles, and they asked that Lawson spend much of his life sentence in solitary.

Liles' children said Lawson opened up to them after the death penalty was brought up, but they don't believe he's told them everything. 

“We have a lot of questions that he has repeatedly refused to answer,” Liles' daughter, Dana Standridge, said.

They think he might be covering for other people.

“Today is not the end,” said Gerald Liles, Deborah Liles' son. “If anything, (it's) the end of the beginning. Lawson has never fully said what he did. We believe he is probably protecting people that helped him destroy evidence, so we will continue to give him opportunities to tell the truth.”

WATCH: Liles' children say they don't believe Lawson has told them everything

Despite the family’s claims inside and outside of court, Lawson’s lawyers told the judge that Lawson has told the State Attorney’s Office everything.

The SAO told News4Jax that Lawson had been acting like he was incompetent to stand trial, but prosecutors learned through jail phone calls that he was faking because he would talk coherently to people he knew.

He was ruled competent after a mental evaluation.

The crime

Police said Deborah Liles, 62, was beaten to death inside her home in the Panama Park neighborhood March 23, 2017. The house was ransacked. Her car was gone.

Police found her stolen Buick LaCrosse two days later. It was ditched near Notter Avenue and Golfair Boulevard. Surveillance video led them to a mobile home park a few miles from the couple's home.

Based on that footage and a tip from a woman who spoke with Lawson after the killing, police searched the man's home. Inside, they said, they found a pair of shoes that had traces of blood on them.

Lawson, who was released from prison in 2016 after a six-year stint for burglary, was booked on charges of murder, armed burglary, grand theft auto and possession of a firearm by a felon.

Deborah Liles' husband, Michael Liles, took over as the executive director of the Justice Coalition, a victims advocate group, after her death. 

Michael Liles, 62, was found dead in his Panama Park home last month. He died of natural causes. 

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