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Last updated 5:58AM ET
March 9, 2021
AG Agrees to Reduce Death Sentence
(APR - Alabama Public Radio ) - A man who twice received the death sentence for the 1987 killing of an elderly woman has had his sentence changed to life in prison without parole after being ruled mentally disabled.

Baldwin County Circuit Judge James H. Reid changed the sentence for John Lionel Neal because of his declared mental disability, acting on the recommendations of his defense lawyers and state Attorney General Troy King. In response, Neal's attorneys agreed to drop all appeals.

King said Tuesday a state mental health expert examined the 43-year-old defendant and found him to be mentally disabled. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states can't execute the mentally disabled.

"If that's the law, you don't have any choice but to agree to the resentencing," King said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Opposing the new sentence posed a bigger legal risk, including the possibility of Neal getting a new trial and receiving a sentence that could lead to parole, King said.

Neal was arrested in Detroit in May 1987 and charged with killing Wilma Underwood, 77, during the burglary of her Foley home on Feb. 16, 1987. He was arrested after Underwood's television was found in his home in Covington, La.

Neal was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1990, but the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals overturned his conviction because of jury selection problems. He was convicted a second time in 1994 and again sentenced to death.

Underwood's family expressed disappointment at the outcome, but said they were relieved to have a resolution.

Rita Watt, the widow of Underwood's son, Gene, told the Press-Register that family members will never have to attend another court hearing again.

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

The attorney general's position was different than the stance he took last year in another capital murder case in Shelby County, where he accused the district attorney of shirking his duties by supporting the reduction of a death sentence.

The Shelby County case involved a separate Supreme Court ruling against executing murderers who were under 18 when they committed their crimes.

A gunman who was 16 at the time of two killings had his death sentence reduced in life in prison without parole, and his accomplice, who was 18 at time of the shootings, was seeking the same reduction.

Shelby County District Attorney Robby Owens supported the change because he said sentences should be equal, but King opposed it.

King said Tuesday the cases are totally different because the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that co-defendants in a capital murder case are entitled to the same sentence.

"I see a lot of distinction between the two," he said.

The Shelby County case is pending in a state appeals court.

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