devotees will find this story familiar even though they've probably
never come across it in their vast and voracious reading. In the last
few years, our attention has been drawn to woman's capacity for evil,
most spectacularly by the sordid case of Karla Homolka and her husband
and partner in deviance, Paul Bernardo. But Karla Homolka wasn't the
first of her kind. A full decade before she and Bernardo undertook
their well-documented spree of torture and murder, Alvin and Judith
Ann Neelley were having a little spree of their own. The similarities
between the two cases are striking: both couples chose teenage
victims; both worked as teams in abduction and sexual assault, and
when found out, they immediately turned against each other. Both cases
resulted in horribly sordid "he said/she said" trials.
"So why," you
may ask, "haven't we heard about this?" Why, indeed. Judy Neelley was
sentenced to death in Alabama's electric chair in 1983 and, at age 18,
was the youngest woman ever to be so sentenced. The murder for which
she was tried and convicted was protracted and cruel. But Judy was a
poor, common girl from the Deep South, a product of both a troubled
home and the juvenile justice system. So was the victim for whose
murder she was convicted, 13-year-old Lisa Ann Millican. Lisa was
killed in DeKalb County, Alabama, a rural, mountainous area whose
county seat of Fort Payne, where the trial was held, had a population
of only 12,000 or so.
and Bernardo, the Neelleys didn't videotape their assaults; such
convenient, space-age toys as camcorders were not widely available in
1982. No crew from Court TV covered the trial, as the network didn't
exist at the time. The Neelley trial was local news, mainly, good for
a lot of gossip in Fort Payne and some coverage in the bigger Alabama
location of Lisa Millican's body not been brought to the attention of
DeKalb County authorities, she may have remained undiscovered for
years. It was an eighty-foot drop from the precipice to the floor of
Little River Canyon, where Lisa's body had landed. The area was
densely wooded and often used as a garbage dump by locals.
Lisa was last
seen in Rome, Georgia and the search for her was focused there, some
thirty-five miles away. In fact, the Rome police and a Rome radio
station had each received a phone call revealing the location of the
body and the Rome Police had been to the area indicated in the calls
but had found nothing.
On the evening
of September 29, 1982 a call came into the DeKalb County Sheriff's
Office in Fort Payne. The then-unidentified caller (Judy Neelley
herself, who had also made the calls to Rome) gave detailed directions
to the location to "a young girl's body."
That night, by
the beam of a flashlight, Deputy James Mays and other lawmen from
around the county found Lisa Millican. She had been shot, and lay
crumpled over a fallen tree. She was brought out of the canyon by rope
the following day and investigators found three used syringes among
the debris into which she had fallen. Hanging from a branch between
the precipice and the canyon floor they found a pair of women's blue
jeans that appeared blood stained.
crime scene contained lots of garbage from previous visitors,
authorities weren't certain these items were relevant to their case,
but delivered them to the Alabama Department of Forensic Science in
Huntsville in hopes of a lead.
was found in DeKalb County, investigators quickly decided that since
she had disappeared from Rome, the case should be worked from there.
The police in Rome had been investigating Lisa's disappearance for
several days, ever since she had gone missing from the Riverbend Mall
on September 25. Lisa had been part of a group of girls from the Ethel
Harpst Home in Cedartown, Georgia, who had gone on a supervised outing
to the mall.
Home was a facility for troubled girls and it was initially hoped that
Lisa had simply run away. She had a history of such behavior. But as
days passed and Lisa didn't return to any of her usual haunts hope
faded, and while it was tragic, it didn't come as a shock that she was
The case was
assigned to Detective Kenneth Kines, who quickly found that Lisa's
short life had been filled with shady characters and ne'er-do-wells.
She was from Lafayette, Georgia and had been removed from her parents'
home, as had her three siblings, following allegations of sexual
abuse. She had been placed in and removed from four different foster
homes and had spent 30 days at the Open Door Home (another youth
facility, this one in Rome) before she had landed at the Harpst Home.
She was sexually precocious, and unpopular with the other girls in the
various facilities where she found herself. She had once kicked
another girl in the stomach hard enough to induce a miscarriage.
conducted numerous interviews with Lisa's family and acquaintances and
emerged with a vivid picture of a sad, short life, but nothing that
moved his investigation forward. Unpopular as she was, she hadn't any
enemies with the motivation or wherewithal to do her in. Her family
had neglected and abused her, but Kines knew they weren't her killers.
His best leads, he knew, were the phone calls revealing the location
of Lisa's body.
& Lady Sundown
The call to
the Rome Police Department had been taped, and while playing it for
Mike Jones of the Walker County Department of Family and Children
Services (which had handled Lisa's case in Lafayette), Kines got an
important bit of information. "Y'all looking for Lisa Ann Millican on
run from the Harpst Home?" the caller had said. Jones latched onto the
term "on run" immediately. That wasn't the way most people referred to
runaways, he told Kines. "On run" was an insider's expression, common
among denizens of the juvenile justice system. The caller, Jones
surmised, probably had a juvenile record.
dramatic scene took place when Kines played the tape for 13-year-old
Debbie Smith, a local girl who had been approached and offered a ride
by a woman in a brown car on October 4. As the tape played, John
Hancock, who had been abducted with Janice Kay Chatman on October 4,
passed by the room. He stopped short when he heard the voice. "That's
the damn woman that shot me!" he exclaimed.
John Hancock's story had seemed too bizarre to believe. He told police
he and Janice Chatman had been out walking on the evening of October 4
and had accepted a ride from a woman in a brown Dodge. The woman said
she was lonely and wanted to talk, and during the ride she made
contact on a CB radio with a man with the handle of Nightrider.
identified herself to him as Lady Sundown, and they eventually
converged on a dirt road north of Rome. Nightrider drove a red car and
had two children with him, and Hancock was instructed to switch cars
and ride with him, leaving Chatman in the car with Lady Sundown.
Hancock felt uneasy now, but not overtly threatened. Both cars resumed
their course north, eventually meandering into Alabama and back. When
they stopped again Hancock was instructed to walk down the road away
from the cars. Lady Sundown shot him in the back, he said, and he had
lain beside the road for a while until he was sure it was safe for him
to find help. They had disappeared with Chatman and he hadn't seen her
until he'd identified the voice on Kines's tape as the voice of Lady
Sundown that investigators believed Hancock's strange story. Now,
though, they trusted him. He identified the types of cars Nightrider
and Lady Sundown had driven, and while that didn't crack the Millican
case, to Kines it seemed a step in the right direction.
All the talk
of anonymous telephone tipsters had piqued the interest of others in
Rome's law enforcement community. Bill Whitner of the Floyd County
Sheriff's Department told Kines his agency was investigating a case
with its own insistent female caller, though his case involved a
firebombing and a shooting.
of Rome's Youth Development Center, Linda Adair and Ken Dooley, had
had incidents at their homes on successive nights. Someone shot into
Dooley's house on September 11 and a Molotov cocktail was tossed into
Adair's driveway on September 12.
No one was
injured, though while the police were investigating the scene at
Adair's home. She received a phone call from an anonymous female who
referred to the shooting at Dooley's house and the firebombing and
claimed, "You both will die before the night's over." A second call
came into the sheriff's office awhile later. "For the abuse I took,"
the caller said, "they are both going to die."
listened to Whitner's account, he made a connection. The Youth
Development Center was a juvenile facility. Mike Jones of Walker
County DFACS had told him the caller on the Millican tape probably had
a juvenile record. Now he had something to pursue. Remembering that
Hancock had said his abductors' cars bore out-of-state license plates,
Kines asked juvenile officer Elaine Snow for a list of all the girls
who'd been placed in the YDC from out of state. She gave him a list of
intense winnowing left him with only one name: Judith Ann Neelley. He
assembled pictures for a photo lineup, and while John Hancock said the
woman in Neelley's photo resembled the woman who shot him, he couldn't
be certain. Debbie Smith, however, recognized Neelley immediately and
gave Kines the positive ID he needed. He started searching for Neelley
He didn't have
to search long. On October 9, Judy Neelley had been arrested at a
motel in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for passing bad checks. Her husband
Alvin was arrested a few days later. On October 14, Kines got the word
that his suspects were in custody. His satisfaction, though, was
tempered with sadness. Janice Chatman had not been with the Neelleys
when they were arrested. Kines was certain she was dead.
Rome and DeKalb County hurried to Murfreesboro. If they expected their
suspects to be guarded and evasive with their answers, they were
mightily surprised. Alvin Neelley, though he asked for and got a
lawyer, waived his right to remain silent and gave a lengthy, detailed
statement that implicated Judy as the criminal mastermind and sexual
deviant of the pair. Politely, almost obsequiously, he explained that
it was she who had planned and carried out the firebombing and the
shooting and it was she who had killed both Millican and Chatman.
"She's a dangerous person," Alvin said, and he feared her. He
obligingly drew a map indicating the location of Chatman's body and
swore that Judy had compelled his participation in any sexual abuse of
Millican and Chatman.
questioned Alvin, Judy was being interviewed down the hall. She
repeatedly stated that she didn't need a lawyer and answered any and
all questions calmly and in detail. She admitted to the firebombing at
Linda Adair's and the shooting at Ken Dooley's, saying Adair had
forced her to have sex with Dooley at the YDC and that she had been
part of a prostitution ring operating out of the facility (these
allegations proved untrue). Then, chillingly, she told of the
abductions of Millican and Chatman and what they had endured in the
days before their deaths. She would continue her confession and add
even more details after she was transported to Fort Payne and formally
charged with Millican's murder.
noticed Lisa Millican because "she looked like Joanie Cunningham, "a
character from TV's "Happy Days." They were in a video arcade in the
Riverbend Mall in Rome and Judy had struck up a conversation. Lisa had
gone with her willingly, she said, because she didn't want to return
to the Harpst Home. That night, they had driven around for hours with
Judy's children in the backseat, finally checking into a motel. The
next few days followed a similar pattern, she said, with aimless
driving during the day, and nights spent in motels where Lisa slept on
the floor, handcuffed to the bed frame. Judy had been afraid, she
said, that upon her release Lisa would tell authorities where she'd
been, implicating Judy, and that she (Lisa) would be placed back in
the YDC. It was much better for her to die than for either of those
things to happen.
Lisa to Rocky Glade, a secluded area in DeKalb County at the edge of
Little River Canyon. As the children slept in the car, Judy walked
Lisa over to a tree and told her to lie down. "I told her I was going
to give her a shot to put her to sleep so I could leave and she
wouldn't know where I was going," Judy told authorities. She then
injected Liquid Drano into the left side of Lisa's neck. She had heard
that this was a quick, undetectable way to kill, but it didn't seem to
be working. She administered another injection to the other side of
Lisa's neck, this time of Liquid Plumr. Lisa was still conscious. More
injections followed, to each of Lisa's arms and each of her buttocks.
Judy waited half an hour. Lisa was in pain but still conscious, so
Judy had her step to the edge of the canyon and turn away. Lisa begged
to be taken back to the Harpst Home, and as she faced the expanse of
the canyon, pleading for her life, Judy shot her in the back. Lisa
fell backwards instead of into the canyon so Judy had to push her over
the edge, getting blood on her jeans in the process. Judy changed her
jeans, then threw the bloody pair and the syringes into the canyon.
She drove away toward Fort Payne, her children still asleep in the
confessed, authorities went looking for Janice Chatman. Her body was
found where Alvin said it would be, off a back road in rural Chattooga
County, Georgia. Meanwhile, a warrant had been executed at the
Murfreesboro home of Barbara Adams, Judy's mother. The Neelleys had
been staying there prior to their arrests and the evidence of their
crimes was abundant throughout the house. Among other items, the
police recovered handcuffs, two CB radios and several guns and knives.
Bob French had
his work cut out for him. He had not wanted to serve as Judy's
court-appointed defense and, after their first meeting, he came away
disliking her intensely. Still, he would do his best. As Judy was
under twenty-one, he began by seeking youthful offender status for
her. Judge Randall Cole denied his motion. French then asked that
psychological tests be administered to determine Judy's fitness for
trial. The tests were done in January 1983 and Judy was found quite
fit for trial, with superior intelligence and no tendency toward
delusion or suicide.
The trial was
scheduled to begin March 7, 1983. In the meantime French set about
making Judy more presentable. She had come into custody decidedly
unkempt and pregnant with her third child, and French knew he needed
to get her cleaned up before she went in front of the jury. Her baby,
a boy, was born while she waited for her court date. She had dental
work done by Dr. Stephen Brewer, and French bought her several outfits
at Black's Department Store, the nicest ladies' clothing store in the
county, so she'd have something to wear during the trial. Though
prosecutor Richard Igou noticed French was preparing Judy for her
court appearance, he hadn't a clue as to what her defense would be
until the first day of the trial.
It was evident
from the sort of questions French asked prospective jurors that he was
going to try and portray Judy as a victim -- the victim of Alvin
Neelley, under whose irresistible control she had been during the
crime. French's questions centered on men's sensitivity to women's
emotional pain, and their roles as heads of households. Jury selection
went rapidly, and within two days, the seven women and five men chosen
were ready to hear evidence.
Any doubt as
to French's approach was erased during his opening statement. "I will
tell you," he said, "that every move, every act, every thought
carrying out the perpetration of this heinous event was planned,
calculated, instituted by Alvin Neelley." He told the jury Judy's
story, beginning with her troubled childhood and adolescence. She had
fallen for Alvin at age fifteen and had left home to be with him, and
within a year, he said, Alvin was beating her savagely. Judy catered
to Alvin's every whim, bathing him, feeding him, and eventually
becoming "brainwashed if anyone was ever brainwashed." She was, French
said, "Alvin Neelley's slave."
first witnesses called by the prosecution were two young women and a
teenage girl who had been, apparently, Judy's prospective victims.
Debbie Smith (for whom Kenneth Kines had been playing the tape of
Judy's voice when John Hancock recognized it as belonging to the woman
who shot him) identified Judy as the woman who had tried to pick her
up as she (Smith) walked home from school on October 4, 1982. Suzanne
Clonts identified Judy as the woman who had approached her and asked
if she was alone at Aladdin's Castle in Rome's Riverbend Mall on
September 25, the day Lisa Millican disappeared. Diane Bobo identified
Judy as the woman who had tried to get her to go for a ride on the
afternoon of October 3. None of these witnesses saw Alvin in the
vicinity when she was approached, and none thought Judy appeared
beaten or abused.
witness, John Hancock, told the story of his abduction just as he had
told it before, and Igou tried to emphasize the fact that it was Judy
who had done the abducting and who had eventually shot him. French,
though, got Hancock to admit that although Judy had seemed in control,
it was actually Alvin who had given her directions throughout the
abduction. Alvin initiated the contact on the CB. Alvin had decided
where they would drive and where they would meet, and when Judy seemed
to dawdle before shooting Hancock, Alvin had yelled for her to hurry.
"He was in charge of that evening's transactions?" French asked, and
Hancock quietly answered, "Yes, sir." French had scored a few points
in Judy's favor with the jury, but with a few questions during
redirect Igou quickly reestablished her role as instigator and
director of the situation. "Did she seem like she was upset or
nervous?" he asked Hancock. "No, sir," Hancock answered. "Who was
ordering you around?" Igou continued. "She was." And finally, "Who
shot you, John?" Hancock's answer was short but powerful: "She did."
defense witness French called was Jo Ann Browning, Alvin Neelley's
first wife. She had been married to Alvin for three years in the
mid-seventies and was mother to three of his children. Browning
testified that he had beaten her throughout her marriage, even when
she was pregnant, and that he had drugged and tried to rape her
teenage sister. She said that she had tried to leave several times but
that Alvin had threatened their children. She only escaped him because
he had suddenly become interested in Judy. Igou damaged her
credibility, though, by establishing that she was definitely a
bigamist (she had married Chauncey William Browning long before she
and Alvin were divorced) and probably a liar as well. Though she
claimed to have been beaten around 800 times Browning had never
suffered a broken bone, and though she'd been pregnant for
twenty-seven months of her three-year marriage, none of her children
was damaged by the beatings, and all three pregnancies concluded
normally. She left the witness stand angry and in tears.
afternoon, French called Judy to the stand. Immediately her appearance
and demeanor clashed with his portrayal of her as a victim. She had
cleaned up nicely, was no longer pregnant, and at 5'10" she cut a
rather imposing figure.
and laughed easily at the defense table, and had one mannerism that
was so alarming French felt a need to explain it to the jury. "When
you're afraid or nervous," he asked her, "how do you handle that fear
or nervousness?" "I smile a lot," she answered. She was smiling even
as she said it, and she continued to smile as French lead her through
questions about her childhood and her early relationship with Alvin.
They had met when Judy was fifteen, and he had been an ardent and
romantic suitor. She left her unstable home willingly.
sexual advances were always crude and selfish and increasingly
violent, she said, and from the start she performed as his servant.
She claimed she bathed him and dried him and combed his hair, and when
he had jobs at convenience stores, it was she who would do the
stocking and sweeping and mopping. She cooked for him and tied his
shoes, she said, and when she did any of her tasks wrong, he beat her.
He taught her robbery and forgery. He was insanely jealous, even
though Judy said she'd always been faithful to him. The stories about
the abuse she'd supposedly received at the YDC were of Alvin's making,
not hers. They had never happened. Judy went into excruciating detail
about various beatings and rapes, and her role as victim was gradually
becoming more believable.
On the last of
Judy's four days of testimony, French began asking questions about
Lisa Millican's abduction and murder. Alvin wanted a virgin, Judy
said, so she had procured him one. She delivered Lisa to him for his
use, and at his instruction took part in the beatings. She witnessed
Alvin's many sexual assaults on Lisa, as did her children, who were
with them the whole time. Alvin had chosen the spot for Lisa's death,
and had been at Judy's side issuing orders the whole time. After he
was sure she was dead, Judy said, he masturbated. He had ordered her
to make the calls to the Rome and Fort Payne police, and she had done
everything he said because she was afraid of him. She admitted to the
abduction and murder of Janice Chatman, imputing these to her fear of
Alvin as well. She had picked up another girl in Murfreesboro for
Alvin's use, but just then she was arrested.
didn't believe any of Judy's testimony. He had seen her when she was
first brought to Fort Payne, and then she had been hard and cold.
Though it was incredible that someone only eighteen years old could be
so indifferent and depraved, Igou thought Judy definitely was. He
quickly tried to counter French's methodically established defense.
Judy claimed to have been beaten countless times but had only suffered
two broken fingers and a slightly chipped tooth. And she had been
acting on her own, she admitted, during the shooting of Janice
The first shot
had been on Alvin's orders, but the other two were because Chatman was
screaming and Judy was afraid someone would hear. "He didn't tell you
to shoot her two more times in the chest just to shut her up, did he?"
Igou asked. "No, sir," Judy answered. Igou then produced a series of
photographs featuring Alvin and Judy posing merrily with various guns
and family members. In each, Judy was smiling, not meekly, but
apparently quite happily. Alvin had arranged all the pictures, Judy
said, and had ordered her to smile like that.
took Judy through the events that took place at the edge of Little
River Canyon the previous September. For every "why" there was an
answer of "because Al told me to." Judy claimed the only things she
did on her own were eat and go to the bathroom, that absolutely
everything else about her life had been dictated by her husband.
redirect was aimed at convincing the jury of that claim. He showed a
few more pictures intended to prove that Judy had been beaten, and he
showed the jury a drawing she had done at the Macon YDC. The sketch
was of a hand reaching out through bars, and Judy said it represented
her life with Alvin.
Dr. Alexander Salillas of the Alabama Department of Mental Health as a
rebuttal witness, and he testified that Judy had known the difference
between right and wrong at the time of her crime, that she had made a
conscious decision to kill Lisa. French tried to get Salillas to say
that, according to the established clinical definition, Judy had been
brainwashed, but Salillas would say no such thing. Throughout a
convoluted and strenuous line of questioning, he maintained that Judy
retained her free will. His testimony did grave damage to Judy's
defense, most remarkably when French asked him if the bruises Judy had
in one of the pictures were consistent with a beating with a baseball
bat. "Not necessarily," he said. "A pinch would give you the same
result." French was flummoxed. "In your opinion," he asked
incredulously, "this could be caused by twisting skin or pinching?"
"Certainly," Salillas answered. He was the last witness to be called.
closing argument took two hours. It was sweeping and, at times,
bizarre. He made reference to the Bible and the Chinese principle of
yin and yang, pleading with the jury to live their Christian witness
and allow their "feminine side," their "love side" to shine through.
He compared Alvin with the character of Svengali from George du
Maurier's Trilby. He spoke of snakes and insects and birds and,
unbelievably, the female multi-orgasmic response. He read some of
Alvin's letters to Judy. Periodically he would meander back to his
point: "Don't you hold Judy Neelley to a standard of some healthy,
robust female whose husband may slap her around now and then.....," he
ordered the jury. "You hold her to the standard of a woman that's
beaten every day of her life, not enough to kill her, just enough to
hurt, just enough to bust her head, just enough to leave teeth marks
on her skin."
prosecution's closing argument was direct, and much shorter than that
of the defense. Judy Neelley had not suffered the abuse she claimed,
Igou said. There were no scars from the attacks. If there had been,
the defense certainly would have pointed them out. Igou reminded the
jury that Dr. Salillas had stated unequivocally that Judy had not been
brainwashed. Debbie Smith, Diane Bobo, Suzanne Clonts, and John
Hancock had all been asked if they'd noticed any marks or bruises on
Judy. None had. Judy planned, carried out, and enjoyed her crimes,
Igou said. "Alvin didn't have the nerve, but she did.....That was Judy
Neelley, not Svengali." The end of his argument centered on Lisa, on
her final moments at the edge of the canyon. What had happened to her
there, he said, was "evil...and I don't think I've ever used that term
before in a criminal case....but if it ever applied to a situation, it
Cole charged the jury at 4:30 pm on March 21. By 10:45 the next
morning, they had returned a verdict. Judith Ann Neelley was found
guilty of murder and abduction. That afternoon, the prosecution and
defense delivered arguments in front of the jury in the sentencing
hearing. Late that night, the jury delivered its recommendation to
Judge Cole. By a 10-2 vote, they recommended that Judy be sentenced to
life in prison. In Alabama, however, a jury's recommendation in a
capital case is not the final word on the matter. It serves only to
inform the judge of the jury's opinion, the final decision lying with
the judge himself. After a brief sentencing hearing on April 18, 1983,
Judge Cole sentenced Judy to die in Alabama's electric chair. She was
eighteen years old.
avoid another death sentence, Judy pled guilty to kidnapping in the
Chatman/Hancock case and agreed to testify against Alvin. Alvin,
afraid of Judy's testimony, pled guilty to kidnapping with bodily harm
and intent to murder. He was sentenced to two life terms.
In August of
1984, a woman told police in Murfreesboro that she had been abducted a
couple of years back and that she had recently come across a picture
of her abductor in the newspaper. The picture was of Judy Neelley. The
woman went by the street name of Casey, and she was that final victim
Judy had picked up just before her arrest. In her account, Casey said
Judy bragged about her various crimes, saying she had killed a girl in
Chattanooga, among others, and that she had newspaper clippings
documenting all this. She talked all night and never once appeared
afraid. She said she liked to see the look on people's faces when she
pulled a gun. In the morning the police came to arrest Judy for bad
checks and Alvin held Casey at gunpoint in the bathroom until they
were gone. Then he let her go.
years, Judy's case wound its way through the appeal process. While
America debated about whether Karla Faye Tucker should be executed in
Texas, Judy quietly moved closer to her own execution. The Supreme
Court denied her final appeal in late 1998, and it seemed that
presently she would be the first woman executed in Alabama in more
than forty years. But the Tucker case had struck a nerve with some
Christian Fundamentalists. Tucker claimed she had undergone a
jailhouse conversion to Christianity and said she was born again. For
that reason and because she was a woman, some Fundamentalists said,
she should not be executed.
the same sort of conversion, and it was her good fortune that
Alabama's governor was just such a Fundamentalist. Fob James had made
a reputation for himself during his second term by vehemently
defending the rights of an Etowah County judge to display the Ten
Commandments prominently in his courtroom, threatening to call in the
National Guard. He had just lost his bid for reelection to Lieutenant
Governor Don Siegelman and would be leaving office very soon.
On January 15,
1999, he commuted Judith Ann Neelley's sentence to life in prison
without the possibility of parole. He gave no explanation for his
decision. Three days later, Siegelman succeeded him. Within a month,
Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor pointed out that, while the
governor of Alabama has power to commute, he has no authority to
Neelley will be eligible for parole in fifteen years.
Early Graves. New York: Dutton Books, 1990
Marlon. "Election 98: Governors: Southern States." The Atlanta Journal
and Constitution, November 11, 1998.
"Alabama Governor Commutes Sentence of Georgia Girl's Killer." The
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, January 16, 1999.