Neelley v. State – Case Brief

Neelley v. State, 494 So.2d 669 (Ala. Crim. App. 1985).

Facts: Neelley (D) abducted a 13 year old runaway to make her available to her husband Alvin for sex. The defendant took her to a motel and threatened to kill her when she resisted Alvin’s attempts to have sex with her. The girl was beaten and sexually assaulted repeatedly over the next several days.

Neelley eventually took the girl to a canyon and attempted to kill her by injecting her with drain cleaner six times. The defendant then took her to the rim of the canyon and shot her in the back. Neelley later picked up a couple, shot the man in the back and left him for dead and took the wife to Alvin at a hotel. Neelley killed the woman the next day. The man survived.

The next day the defendant turned herself in to the police. She was found guilty of murder and the jury recommended a life sentence. The trial judge performed his own analysis of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and concluded that the death penalty was warranted. The trial judge disregarded the jury’s recommendation and sentenced Neelley to death.

Issues: 1) May a trial court apply its own analysis of aggravating and mitigating circumstances and impose a death sentence contrary to the jury’s recommendation? 2) Did the trial court abuse its discretion or commit error adversely affecting the rights of the defendant? 3) Is duress a defense to the crime of murder?

Holding and Rule: 1) Yes. A trial court by its own analysis may overturn the recommendation of a jury and sentence a party to death. 2) No. The trial court did not abuse its discretion or commit error adversely affecting the rights of the defendant. 3) No. Duress is not a defense in a prosecution for murder.

The trial court went through the findings of fact and mitigating circumstances and properly found the existence of two aggravating circumstances: the offense was committed in the course of a kidnapping and it was especially heinous, atrocious, and cruel compared to other capital offenses. The trial judge found that the only statutory mitigating circumstance was that Neelley was only 18 years old at the time of the crime. The trial judge also found two nonstatutory mitigating circumstances: Neelley was substantially influenced by her husband, and she voluntarily and intentionally set in motion the events that ended this crime spree.

Our independent weighing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances indicates that death was the proper sentence. The record reveals no evidence that the death sentence was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor. Duress is not a defense to a prosecution for murder and there was no evidence that Neelley was legally insane. Diminished capacity is not a defense under Alabama law and therefore battered woman’s syndrome is not a defense to these crimes.

We agree with the judge below that even though the jury recommended life without parole, their recommendation was outweighed by the aggravating circumstances of this crime.

Disposition: Affirmed.

See Diniero v. United States Lines for a torts law case brief in which the trial judge withdrew a set of interrogatories after submitting them to the jury.

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