Convicted murderer's life is spared at court hearing

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Convicted murderer's life is spared at court hearing

Post  Jennie on Tue Jun 17, 2008 11:45 pm

Convicted murderer's life is spared at court hearing-----Victim's family members express disappointment, but hope in finding relief with final resolution


A man sentenced to death twice for the 1987 murder of a Foley woman will now spend his life in prison following a Monday morning court hearing.

Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge James H. Reid approved a motion filed jointly by attorneys for John Lionel Neal, 43, and the Attorney General's Office to reduce the sentence related to the murder of 77-year-old Wilma Underwood, state officials said.

The successful motion sought to reduce Neal's death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In turn, Neal has agreed to drop all challenges of his conviction or sentence, said Assistant Alabama Attorney General Jon Hayden.

"If he were to file any attack like that, the proceeding this morning would be set aside, his death sentence would be reinstated, and we basically would start all over," Hayden said.

Neal's lawyers, who are based in Boston, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Underwood was killed during a burglary of her Foley home Feb. 16, 1987. Neal's fingerprints were found in a pocketbook in Underwood's ransacked house. Her television set was later found in Neal's Covington, La., home, officials with the case said. Neal was arrested in Detroit and placed in the Baldwin County jail on May 29, 1987.

In 1990, Neal was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. The Court of Criminal Appeals later overturned that conviction because of the jury selection process. In the spring of 1994, a second jury found Neal guilty and recommended he be executed for beating to death the mother of four sons and burglarizing her home.

Monday's agreement was reached as the defense planned to argue in a pending hearing that Neal is mentally retarded, which a state evaluation supports, Hayden said.

A 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision deemed the execution of mentally retarded individuals as cruel and unusual punishment.

While Underwood's relatives and others associated with the case expressed dis appointment in the final outcome, they said they find relief in the resolution.

Rita Watt, who was married to Wilma Underwood's son, Gene, until his death in 1993, said family members will wake up today with the knowledge that they will not have to attend another trial or hearing.

"Maybe we can start now to heal," said Watt, 73. "It will never be over, but we will know where he is, and he is not going to do any harm to anyone else."

David Whetstone, the district attorney who prosecuted the case but is now in private practice, said he agrees with the state's decision to set a concrete outcome.

"The likelihood of a person being executed in today's world is extremely unlikely," Whetstone said, adding he has sent many defendants to death row, but none have been executed.

A.W. "Bogey" Hall, who grew up with Underwood's sons and was assistant police chief in Foley at the time of the murder, said if the courts determine that Neal is mentally retarded, then the law has to be followed.

"As long as he will serve life in prison without parole, I will be satisfied," said Hall, who is retired. "As far as the sentence, of course, I would have loved for them to flip the switch on him."

(source: Mobile Press-Register)
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