BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - A woman convicted and originally sentenced to die for the 1982 brutal 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.
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Judith Ann Neelley can proceed with her lawsuit challenging an Alabama law enacted in 2003 aimed at retroactively preventing her parole.
The appeals court reversed U.S. District Court Judge Keith Watkins' ruling that says Neelley's 2014 lawsuit challenging that state law was filed too late under the statute of limitations. Watkins had said she should have filed the lawsuit in 2003.
In its opinion Wednesday, the appeals court ruled that the Parole Board initially thought the 2003 Act did not apply to Neelley because the retroactivity clause went back to 1998 and she committed her crime in 1982. "The Parole Board generally looks to the date of the commission of an offense in determining the applicability of laws bearing on parole eligibility," the appeals court stated.
"It was not until after seeking and receiving the opinion of the Attorney General in 2014 that the Parole Board reversed course and notified Neelley that it had changed its position and had decided that Neelley was ineligible for parole at any time," the appeals court stated.
That means, the appeals court ruled, Neelley did not exceed the statute of limitations. "There was no final decision in 2003; the relevant action occurred in 2014 when the State, by way of the Parole Board, decided to apply retroactively the Act to Neelley," the appeals court stated.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange disagreed with the decision.
"Judith Ann Neelley abducted, tortured, and murdered a 13-year-old orphan girl," he said in a statement. "As long as I am attorney general, my office will do everything within its power to ensure that she remains behind bars."
Neelley's attorney, Barry Ragsdale, said the decision means the law was "plainly unconstitutional," and her challenge was filed properly.
"We can now return to the district court in Montgomery to litigate the significant constitutional issues presented by the Legislature's effort to retroactively deprive Ms. Neelley of her right to be considered for parole. We are confident that we will prevail on our constitutional claims and the court will agree with us that she should be reclassified as parole-eligible.
Neelley was convicted in the 1982 slaying of 13-year-old Lisa Ann Millican, originally of LaFayette, Georgia.
According to court documents, Neelley in late September 1982 kidnapped Lisa from the Riverbend Mall in Rome, Georgia, and took her to a motel room for her husband Alvin to rape. Over the next several days, Alvin raped Lisa four times, with Neelley assisting as needed by beating her and handcuffing her to the bed to prevent an escape.
When the couple was done, Neelley took Lisa to Little River Canyon outside Fort Payne where Neelley injected Lisa six times with liquid drain cleaner in a botched attempt to kill her. After that didn't work, Neelley led Lisa to the rim of the gorge. Over Lisa's pleas to go home, Neelley shot Lisa in the back and then shoved her into the canyon.
A jury recommended Judith Neelley serve a sentence of life imprisonment without parole but the judge instead imposed a death sentence. As Alabama Gov. Fob James was about to leave office he commuted Neelley's death sentence on Jan. 15, 1999 to a life sentence.
Alvin Neelley was convicted in the death of a woman in Georgia and died while in prison there in 2005.