MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A woman originally sentenced to die for the 1982 slaying of a 13-year-old Georgia girl in north Alabama has won a legal battle in her fight to one day get a chance at parole.
A federal judge ruled Friday that an Alabama law, passed to block Judith Ann Neelley from getting parole after her death sentence was commuted, was unconstitutional.
Alabama Gov. Fob James on his last day in office in 1999 commuted Neelley's death sentence to life imprisonment. In response, lawmakers in 2003 passed a law that death row inmates who had their sentences commuted "shall not be eligible for a parole." Neelley filed a lawsuit challenging the statute and its retroactive application to her case.
U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins ruled Friday that the measure was unconstitutional and lawmakers could not retroactively increase her punishment.
"The Alabama Legislature may have disagreed with Governor James's decision to commute Ms. Neelley's sentence to life with the possibility of parole, or perhaps it thought Governor James meant to commute her sentence to life without the possibility of parole. But the Alabama Legislature could not increase her punishment after her death sentence was commuted," Watkins wrote.
Neelley's attorney, Barry Ragsdale, said he was pleased with the decision but it was, "more importantly a victory for the Constitution."
He said Neelley holds no illusions that she will be paroled in the immediate future.
Attorney General Steve Marshall's office is reviewing the decision and declined to comment, a spokeswoman wrote in an email.
Neelley was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to die for killing 13-year-old Lisa Ann Millican.
According to court documents, Neelley kidnapped Millican from a shopping mall for her husband to rape. Neelley said she was acting on her husband's instructions when she injected Millican multiple times with drain cleaner in a botched attempt to kill her.
When the girl didn't immediately die, Millican was shot and pushed into a canyon in northeastern Alabama.