Oct. 3, 2007

Fob James discusses Neelley sentence commutation

By Scott Wright

From July 22, 2002 — Despite the fact that over 70 percent of those who took part in a recent poll at The Post Online think otherwise, former Alabama Gov. Fob James said last week that convicted killer Judith Ann Neelley did not deserve to die. For the first time ever, in an exclusive interview with The Post, James gave some insight as to why he feels this way.

Many Alabamians, like those who voted last week in The Post Online's unscientific poll, have voiced their anger and confusion over James's 1999 decision to commute Neelley's death sentence in the 1982 murder of 13-year-old Lisa Ann Millican. James signed an order reducing the sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole during his final days in office.

Before last week, he had never offered an explanation for the decision.

Thursday, in an exclusive phone interview from his office in Greenville, James -- in the familiar, distinctive, southern drawl familiar to at least two separate generations of Alabamians -- said he thought long and hard before halting Neelley's execution. "It would be impossible for me to give you all the reasons without showing you a lot of information and documents on the matter," James said.

The former governor (1979-83, 1995-99) did, however, expound on what he said was the driving reason for the initial decision to investigate the possibility of commuting her death sentence.

"That DeKalb County jury, which heard all of the facts that heinous crime in the months right after the events took place, convicted her to life in prison," James said. He paused before adding, "Then, the judge changed the sentence to death."

Clearly, the implication was that a jury of Neelley's peers saw all the evidence in the case -- which included charges by the defense that Neelley was following instructions from her abusive husband -- and felt a sentence of life in prison was sufficient punishment.

Neelley was convicted in 1983 of the brutal death of Millican, a runaway from Rome, Ga. After kidnapping Millican from Riverbend Mall in Rome on Sept. 25, 1982, Neelley and husband Alvin Neelley tortured and raped Millican for three days. Then, Judith Ann Neelley injected Millican with drain cleaner, shot her in the back and dumped her body in Little River Canyon in DeKalb County.

Alvin Neelley is currently serving life in prison in Georgia for kidnapping and attempted murder.

Ninth Judicial Circuit District Attorney Mike O'Dell, who was assistant to former DA Richard Igou and helped prosecute Judith Ann Neelley, still can't imagine what made James do what he did.

"I was shocked and disturbed when I found out Gov. James commuted Neelley's sentence," O'Dell said July 18. "He did this without speaking to (the DA's office) or asking our opinion. It is clear he did not want us to be involved in his decision."

O'Dell pointed out that James commuted Neelley’s sentence on the same day the state requested a date for her execution.

James pointed specifically to the original jury verdict in explaining why he instructed his staff to begin researching the case during his second term as governor. Ultimately, James, who said he is a firm believer in capital punishment, determined from his research that life in prison was the appropriate sentence for Neelley.

"To kill her would not be justice," James said emphatically.

But O'Dell was just as emphatic in his disagreement.

"If anyone in the history of Alabama ever deserved to be executed, it was Judith Ann Neelley," O'Dell said.

"During our interviews, she told us how she and her husband tortured little Lisa before finally putting her to death. She showed no emotion, no remorse, no sadness" as she spoke, O'Dell said. "That's what got me about her."

A few weeks after James commuted Neelley's sentence, Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor ruled that because an obscure state in the state constitution, the governor's office had the power to commute death sentences but held no jurisdiction over parole.

As a result, Pryor ruled Neelley would be eligible for parole in 15 years, standard following a life sentence in Alabama.

James insists that interpretation of the law is incorrect and feels he did the right think by restoring the jury’s original sentence.

"When I commuted that sentence I thought -- and my lawyers had investigated it -- that there could be no possibility of parole," James said. "It is a total contradiction to commute a death sentence and then allow for the possibility of parole."

Recently, Neelley's case has been in the news again because of a request by her attorney to clarify the status of her parole eligibility.

Her attorney insists the time Neelley spent in prison prior to 1999, should count towards her parole, making her eligible immediately. Attorneys for the state argue that her mandatory parole hearing should not be held until 15 years after her sentence was commuted. On July 16, the Alabama Supreme Court agreed to review the matter.

"I feel strongly that Neelley should not be eligible for parole until 2014," O'Dell said.

Even if Neelley is paroled in Alabama, O'Dell said he faces a prison sentence in Georgia for her part in another murder.

"If parole is ever granted, my office will do everything in its power to see that Georgia gives her the maximum sentence of 50 years," he said. "We have been in contact with officials from Georgia since the parole issue has arisen."

"Either way, she'll spend the rest of her life in prison," he said.

Urged by this publication to go public with his explanation, James seemed to understand the people's need to seen the information he gathered before deciding to change Neelley's sentence.

James said he has a large volume of records relating to the case at his Greenville office, and sounded sincere when he invited The Post to contact him in the future to discuss an in-depth, follow-up interview.

"Call me sometime when you can come down and we'll spend a day or two and go over all these files," he said. "I won't forget."

Editor's Note: The Post has republished this story from 2002 because of recent media attention surrounding the 25th anniversary of the death of Lisa Ann Millican. Efforts to contact James and review the files from the trial of Judith Ann Neelley have so far been unsuccessful.