Last week, convicted killer Judith Ann Neelley challenged a state law that made her ineligible for parole. Apparently, she wants out. In 1983, a jury gave her a life sentence for her part in a murder, but the judge decided she deserved death.
When he set aside the jury’s sentence, Neelley became the youngest woman to have been sentenced to Alabama's death row. She appealed and lost.
Then in 1999, Governor Fob James spared her by commuting her death sentence to life. With this decision came the possibility for parole.
However, in 2003, the Alabama Legislature passed a bill, retroactive to 1998, that prohibited Neelley from benefitting from the governor's gesture. The bill stated that any person whose death sentence had been commuted by the state's governor would not be eligible for parole. Neelley is the only person to whom this applied.
She would have been eligible for parole this past January. One of Neelley’s attorneys asked the Board of Pardons and Paroles to set a hearing. The board sought guidance from the attorney general’s office, which issued an opinion at the end of March that Neelley was not eligible.
DeKalb County District Attorney Mike O'Dell confirmed that the law is not a violation of Neelley's rights because it did not change her original sentence of life in prison.
On April 10, Neelley's legal team filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming that the U.S. Constitution prohibits a legislature from retroactively increasing a person’s punishment: “The retroactive application of Act 2003-300 was a vindictive and politically motivated response to Governor James’ commutation of Neelley’s death sentence.”
The complaint seeks a judgment finding the 2003 legislative act unconstitutional, a parole hearing, and attorney fees. It remains to be seen how this case will develop.
Judith Neelley is a rare type of killer. At age 15, she had married Alvin Neelley, who was 14 years older than her. The following year, 1980, she robbed a woman at gunpoint. She also urged Alvin to help her with her vendettas against people she didn't like. Calling themselves "Boney and Claude,” they forged checks, harassed people, and committed other petty crimes.
Eventually, they turned to rape and murder. In September 1982, they lured a 13-year-old girl, Lisa Ann Millican, into their car, and in front of their own twins, they molested and killed her. Judith injected the girl with liquid drain cleaner, shot her and pushed her off a cliff.
Judith’s MO, it later turned out, was to approach a girl she wanted to kidnap, pretend to know her, and call her by a wrong name. Once she was set straight about her “mistake,” she learned the girl’s actual name and where she lived. Judith would then pressure the girl about going “for a ride.”
In GA that October, Judith lured John Hancock and his girlfriend, Janice Chatman, into a car. She drove them around until she met up with Alvin. She then shot Hancock in the woods and left him for dead while she took off with Janice, whom she and Alvin raped and killed. Hancock survived and fingered Judith as the shooter. She pleaded guilty in that case and testified against Alvin, who went to prison for life. (He died in 2005.)
When this team was arrested, Alvin claimed that Judith had instigated the crimes. He said she was responsible for numerous other murders (no evidence connected her), and he’d just gone along with her. She liked to have power over others, he said.
If his claim is true, these two represent a rare phenomenon. Females dominate and instigate in less than 1 percent of serial killing male/female teams. In addition, Judith was just 18. Had they eluded arrest, they would have continued to kill.
Yet Judith blamed Alvin and claimed she was a victim of domestic abuse. She also said she was insane and could not help what she had done. Both ploys failed, so she’s been serving her sentence for the past 30 years.
Even if she managed to achieve her long-shot goal of being released from an Alabama prison, Neelley would still face a life sentence in another state for the rape-murder of Janice Chatman.
Her potential release, while controversial, is far from a sure thing.