Death penalty group forms

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 9, 2002

Michael O'Dell, who is the District Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit of Alabama in Fort Payne, has announced the formation of a grassroots coalition to support Senator Lowell Barron's new legislation dealing with the death penalty that Barron expects to pre file in the state Legislature in the next few weeks.

This bill would amend a current law dealing with a governor's commutation of a death sentence to life by eliminating that defendant's right to ever be eligible for parole.

Under existing law, a defendant sentenced to death whose sentence is commuted to life in prison is eligible for parole after he has served at least 15 years from the date of the commutation.

"As we all know, Senator Barron's bill is in response to the case involving Judith Neelley wherein then-governor Fob James commuted her death sentence on his last day in office," said O'Dell. "According to an interview granted by James to Scott Wright of the Cherokee Post of Centre, Alabama, the governor's driving reason for his initial decision to investigate the possibility of commuting Neelley's death sentence was that the DeKalb County jury convicted her and sentenced her to lift in prison.

Then the judge changed the sentence to death. The implication James gave to the reporter was that he felt the jury considered a sentence of life in prison was sufficient punishment."

According to the article, James apparently instructed his staff to begin researching the case during his second term as a governor. Although James apparently described himself as a firm believer in capital punishment, he determined from his research that life in prison was the appropriate sentence for Neelley.

"Governor James emphatically stated "to kill (Neelley) would not be justice," said O'Dell.

The coalition is currently comprised of O'Dell, Cherokee and DeKalb Counties, Charles Rhodes, Jackson County, Steve Marshall, Marshall County, Sheriffs Cecil Reed (DeKalb), Mike Wells (Jackson), and Mac Holcomb (Marshall) and A. Richard Igou, former District Attorney for DeKalb and Cherokee Counties.

Covington County District Attorney Eugenia Loggins said she has not been in formal contact with O'Dell regarding the case or the coalition, but said she would be supportive of O'Dell in the effort.

"I think (O'Dell) has a good understanding of what the law is supposed to be and I would certainly help him in getting this cleared up," said Loggins.