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Change of venue in murder case

MONTICELLO — Lawrence County residents avoided the possibilityof passing down their first death sentence when the judge approveda change of venue in the trial of James A. McNeese Jr.

A new date and location for McNeese’s trial has not beenset.

McNeese, 30, of 1362 Union St. Ext., Brookhaven, is accused ofstabbing Tanya Mullins Smith, 26, to death in her home on OldHighway 27.

The District Attorney’s Office is pursuing the death penalty inthe case, said Bob Evans, who represents McNeese.

The death penalty was last handed down in a Lawrence County casein 1982 when Howard Neal was convicted in the death of Amanda JoyNeal, his niece, and his half-brother, Bobby Neal. He was convictedin Purvis for Amanda’s death and in Ellisville for Bobby’s murder.Neal is still on death row at Parchman penitentiary awaitingexecution, which has been postponed several times.

Evans said the defense had expected to go ahead with the trialas scheduled Monday, but “when I got to my office (Monday) morning,(McNeese) had left me a message asking me to get it changed.”

The attorney said he immediately drafted the change of venuemotion because “nothing is unimportant or trivial on a deathcase.”

The case against McNeese began Wednesday, June 21, 2000, whenSmith’s body was discovered by her friend, Jane Bell Selman. Selmanalso discovered Smith’s 11-month-old baby, who was not harmed.

Smith had been alone with her baby while her husband, ClarenceSmith, was away working in Denham Springs, La.

According to the autopsy, Smith had been stabbed 16 times,mostly in the torso.

“Only the last one would have been fatal,” said Sheriff JoelThames at the time. “The first 15 were superficial. They werepuncture wounds, not slashes.”

The last thrust struck her heart, he said.

The autopsy also revealed that Smith was 12 weeks pregnant,Thames said.

According to sources at the time, McNeese had run out of gasnorth of Smith’s home and went to borrow some money from her.McNeese is a cousin of the victim’s husband. When Smith declined,they began to argue at the front door and McNeese pushed his wayinto the house, where the argument escalated into a physicalaltercation. During the fight, he allegedly grabbed a serratedkitchen knife off a counter and began stabbing her.

He then locked the house and took Smith’s 1997 white Grand Am GTto a convenience store in Monticello, where he filled it with gasand drove off without paying.

He then returned to Smith’s house, broke a window to gain entry,and stole some guns.

Sheriff’s deputies were involved in a pursuit of McNeese laterthat day, but he eluded him. The pursuit was too much for Smith’scar, however, and it overheated. McNeese allegedly then stole abrown Ford Bronco that night.

The Bronco was discovered on the side of Skating Rink Road inJefferson Davis County the next night and law enforcement agenciesfocused their search in that area.

Dogs tracked him to a hay field on Golden Pine Road, where hehad apparently stopped to rest, and he was captured around 5:30a.m. Friday without incident. Drug paraphernalia and a .357 magnumwere confiscated during the arrest.