When Gov. Gavin Newsom pardoned five people and commuted the sentences of 21 others on Friday, he refocused scrutiny on one local case in particular: Rodney McNeal, the former San Bernardino County probation officer convicted of killing his wife and unborn child nearly 20 years ago.
McNeal, now 50, was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison in 2000. His commutation means he’ll now be able to bring his case before the state’s parole board.
The board will decide whether he’s able to be released back in to the community.
“Mr. McNeal has committed himself to his self-improvement,” Newsom wrote in his commutation letter for McNeal. “I have concluded that Mr. McNeal merits an earlier opportunity to make his case to the Board of Parole Hearings so it can determine whether he is suitable for parole.”
Newsom’s slew of pardons and commutations come as the state reels from a widespread coronavirus outbreak. Some officials, fearing a devastating outbreak behind bars in some of the area’s crowded jails and prisons, have worked to release inmates with a few days left on their sentences, as well as some with non-violent convictions.
In a statement, Newsom said while the commutations announced Friday were already under consideration before the coronavirus outbreak, said “he also considered the public health impact of each grant, as well as each inmate’s individual health status and the suitability of their post-release plans, including housing.”
McNeal was the primary suspect in the killing of Debra McNeal in the middle of the day on March 10, 1997 in Highland. Then six-months pregnant, her body was found submerged in a bathtub in their home, with stab wounds, injuries from being beaten and strangulation marks. The house was ransacked.
Rodney McNeal discovered her body and ran to their neighbors for help. But police later arrested the husband after learning of several domestic violence incidents at the home.
Three years later, Rodney McNeal was convicted of two counts of second degree murder. He received two sentences of 15 years to life, one for both his wife and the unborn child.
Attorneys with the California Innocence Project latched on to the case early — in 2006, they filed a writ of habeus corpus, seeking to show a third party was behind Debra McNeal’s murder.
According to them, Rodney McNeal’s half-brother, Jeff West, who was already serving time for other killings, admitted to the murder of Debra McNeal to several witnesses.
The group’s attorneys also challenged the timeline of the murder police presented — they said Rodney McNeal only arrived home about two minutes before police arrived at the scene.
“Despite strong evidence that (Rodney McNeal) is innocent, the San Bernardino Superior Court judge declined to reverse (McNeal’s) conviction,” the Innocence Project wrote on its website about the case. “Post-conviction DNA testing on evidence found at the crime scene was inconclusive. (McNeal) remains in prison for a crime he did not commit.”
I tried the case of People v Rodney McNeal. I pray @CAgovernor gave the victims family notice. He has never showed remorse for killing his wife and child. California governor commutes sentences, including for murder https://t.co/e7tsHTzyTZ
— Michael Ramos (@michaelramos) March 28, 2020
Michael Ramos, San Bernardino County’s former district attorney, was the trial lawyer in charge of prosecution Rodney McNeal. He said he remembered the case very differently than the Innocence Project.
“He was guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Ramos said Sunday. “This guy is very manipulative.”
Ramos, who served as district attorney until early 2019, said investigators had presented ” a combination of circumstantial evidence” that proved Rodney McNeal’s guilt.
“A neighbor saw him coming in and out of the house,” he said. “He tried to make it look like it was a robbery.”
Ramos said he spoke with one of Debra McNeal’s daughters from another marriage on Saturday about the commutation; on Twitter, Shantel Denay Haynes said she received no notice of the governor’s action and only found out from corrections officers.
“I only found out because I registered myself on the victims service registry,” she said. “I’m very worried for his release.”
A parole hearing for Rodney McNeal has not yet been scheduled. Officials with the governor’s office were not immediately available for comment on Sunday.
Ramos said he supports freeing inmates from prison who have shown good behavior behind bars and have displayed their efforts at being rehabilitated. But he said he was “surprised and shocked” by the McNeal commutation.
“Inmates who’ve shown very good behavior, I get that. I don’t think that’s wrong to (release them),” he said. “But I think when you killed two people, there’s a price to pay.”