Neal resentenced in 27-year-old murder

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, July 1, 2008

After sitting on death row for a triple homicide/double rapethat took place more than 25 years ago, Howard Monteville Neal, 55,of Monticello, finally doesn’t have to worry about being executedanymore.

For two and a half decades, Neal’s attorneys contended that hewas mentally retarded and should not be on death row, and onFriday, 15th Circuit Court Judge R.I. Prichard resentenced Neal tolife in prison without the possibility of parole in the murder ofAmanda Joy Neal, 13. The sentence is to be served consecutively toa life sentence in the death of his brother and Amanda Joy’sfather, Bobby Neal, 41. He was never tried in the rape and murderof his other niece, Melanie Sue Polk, 12.

“From our office’s standpoint, this family has been traumatizedfor 26 years, and I don’t know if this is an ending for them, butat least they have an answer,” said 15th Circuit District AttorneyHal Kittrell. “It’s our hope and the family’s hope that he’ll neversee the light of day again.”

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Neal was convicted of raping and murdering his two young nieces,ages 12 and 13, and fatally shooting his brother in early 1981, acrime that has divided his family ever since.

Amanda Joy Neal and Polk were found dead in a forest in LawrenceCounty a few weeks after their disappearance.

“He took those two young girls, 12 and 13 at the time, andplaced them in the trunk of the car, and took his brother out inthose woods and murdered them,” said retired Highway PatrolInvestigator Gary Austin, of Liberty, who worked on the case in1982. “I can still see the horror on the Polk girl’s face, even indeath.”

Investigators said Amanda Joy Neal, who was found about 900yards from her cousin, could have lived as much as 30 minutes aftershe was raped and shot before she bled to death, based on herwounds.

“Amanda crawled several hundred feet before she finally expired.We know he had them locked up in the trunk of the car going outthere, because Amanda had managed to scribble her initials into thepaint in the deck of the truck lid,” said Austin. “I feel sure sheknew she going to die even at that time. It had to be justterrifying to them.”

Bobby Neal was found about a month after the girls and severalmiles from their location. He was shot in the side, and bound withcotton rope.

Howard Neal did not live in Lawrence County like the rest of hisfamily at the time of the murders. He and his wife Darla, who was19 at the time, were passing through town after he had been laidoff from his job as an oilfield worker in Texas. He left her andtheir small child in a Brookhaven motel room and went to BobbyNeal’s house. It was during that trip that he killed his familymembers. He then returned to the motel room, and according to hiswife’s testimony, said his brother didn’t want him in town, andthey fled to Oregon, police said.

Neal was later apprehended for shoplifting a $2.99 baseball capin Stockton, Calif., at which point investigators realized he waswanted for questioning in three murders in Mississippi. Aftermaking a confession to Stockton Homicide Investigator WilsonStewart, he was returned to Mississippi.

During his graphic confession, Neal told Stewart that he knewpolice could prove he’d been in Mississippi at the time of themurders, but that he couldn’t say it himself because “those peoplewill kill me.”

At another point in his confession, Neal stated that he knew hedeserved the death penalty because of what he had done to the twogirls.

Authorities also came across evidence, starting with somethingDarla Neal had said, that tied Neal to two unsolved murders inCalifornia as well.

The February 1982 trial for the murder of Amanda Joy Neal washeld in Lamar County after a change of venue was requested by thedefense, but accounts say the courtroom was packed by outragedLawrence County residents in spite of the drive. At the end of thetrials for the murders of Amanda Joy Neal and Bobby Neal, HowardNeal was given a cell on death row.

Kittrell said Judge Prichard was forced to resentence Neal underlegislation from 2002 that says it is illegal to sentence mentallyretarded subjects to death.

“Guided by Atkins vs. Virginia, which is the case that said youcannot execute someone who has been found mentally retarded, JudgePrichard was left with no alternative,” Kittrell said.

Investigators from the original case said Neal had alreadyundergone several tests and had been determined fit to stand trialunder the guidelines at the time.

“I can’t understand why this has come up now, when he wentthrough all sorts of examinations even before the trial. I eventook him to a psychologist myself once,” Austin said, saying thestandard in the 1980s was the ability to tell right from wrong. “Myopinion doesn’t mean anything, but I don’t think he’s that mentallyretarded. Had we thought that he was, we wouldn’t have pursued thedeath penalty.”

There are several criteria to determine mental retardation asset up by Atkins vs. Virginia, one of which is an IQ level below70-75. Kittrell said even at the time of the crime, Howard Neal’sIQ was found to be around 54-60. After the Supreme Court ruling,Kittrell said, Prichard ordered a battery of tests to determinewhether or not Neal was, in fact, retarded.

After a panel of five forensic psychologists returned with areport in March 2007 that Neal was, in fact, within the parametersof legal mental retardation, he was brought up forresentencing.

“There wasn’t even a hearing, because at that time the AttorneyGeneral said we can’t argue with the law,” Kittrell said. “If youhave psychology experts that say that he is retarded, he can’t beon death row.”

Johnnie Davis, 77, mother of both Bobby and Howard Neal, saidshe feels like her son, who she asserts is, in fact retarded, hasdone his time for the crimes he committed.

“I don’t think he should have to [be on death row] because he isretarded,” she said. “I think if they would do the right thing theywould let him go free after he sat so many years. He paid for thecrime.”

Meanwhile, investigators on the case say the man theyinvestigated, interrogated, and imprisoned was in no way mentallyincompetent. They assert that Neal knew right from wrong and knewwhat he was doing throughout the crimes.

Retired Highway Patrol investigator Billy Simmons, of McComb,said if justice were served, Neal would remain on death row.

“I do not at all feel like he was mentally incompetent,” Simmonssaid. “I think he ought to die, he killed three people. I do feelthat way.”

Davis said Howard Neal, who was in and out of mentalinstitutions from a young age, had always been ridiculed by BobbyNeal, and supported the theory that he had committed the murders asa way of lashing out against the years of bullying.

“Bobby was mean to him, made fun of him all the time and calledhim crazy,” she said. “But he didn’t deserve to be killed.”

Davis said she feels like her son has been treated fairly by theDepartment of Corrections so far. She said, however, that shemisses Howard Neal and still loves him very much.

“I haven’t seen him or heard from him in 2 or 3 years, but theywere good to him as far as I could tell,” she said. “I still lovehim and would love to see him.”

Meanwhile, investigators think Neal has been treated more thanfairly, and that justice has not been done for the memories of thedeceased.

“That was one of the worst cases I worked as a criminalinvestigator, and I’ve kept up with it over the years,” saidAustin. “I know it’s strong language, but the only retarded thingabout this case is the decision. If anyone ever deserved the deathpenalty he did, and I hope Judge Prichard issued an order to weldthe door shut.”