Adolph Ray “Sonny” Neal could have faced the death penalty for brutally murdering his wife and her grandfather last year, but the victims’ family members said they accepted a deal in which he was sentenced to life in prison without parole because they wanted to avoid having the couple’s young daughter testify at his trial.
Neal, 50, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to the May 2012 stabbing death of Jessica Brittany Neal, 27, and the fatal beating of Don William Shedd, 69, before Judge William T. Boyett in Whitfield County Superior Court.
“I wanted him put away forever where he can’t be no threat whatsoever to anybody, to our granddaughter or anybody,” said Donna Patterson, Jessica Neal’s mother. “He didn’t just take a daughter and a sibling, a sister, away from my brothers and sisters. He took our daughter, he took our granddaughter’s mamma, he took my daddy ...”
Neal declined to make a statement in court, but answered yes or no questions from Boyett and admitted he stabbed his wife to death and killed her grandfather by beating him with a pipe wrench. His attorney, Marcus Morris, said the sentence was fair, and his client is “very sorry.”
Neal was sentenced to life in prison for his wife’s murder and life in prison without the possibility of parole for Shedd’s murder. Shedd lived with the couple.
Morris said Neal was dealing with a lot of issues that caused him to act out of character, including what he described as an “external intrusion into the marital relationship” on Jessica’s part. Morris said he was also mourning the loss of a brother who had died of cancer about a month before the killings and was on prescription Xanax for depression. Neal had had a fight with his wife the night before.
“Mr. Neal, in a state of depression, took Xanax and consumed a quantity of alcohol which resulted in an explosive emotional rage that took the lives of two individuals,” Morris said. “Mr. Neal is very sorry for what happened ... I want the court to know this is not a person who just decided to go kill two people.”
Jessica Neal’s family isn’t buying it. They believe it wasn’t just Neal having an off day or a difficult time in his life. They believe this is the kind of man he was and is. Patterson said Neal was deceptively charming and charismatic while actually being a “narcissistic sociopath” who had beat her daughter and cheated on their relationship.
She said Neal met her daughter at a beauty contest in Resaca where she said he was “pretending” to be a professional photographer. When the two met, Jessica’s daughter was less than 2 years old. He married Jessica and adopted her daughter at age 5. The little girl was the one who found Shedd dead. She told a neighbor who called 911.
District Attorney Bert Poston said the evidence from the very beginning pointed to Neal as the murderer. While Poston didn’t go into details, he said the couple had argued until at least 10:30 the night before Jessica Neal and Shedd were found dead.
“That argument ultimately led to the murder of the two victims in this case,” Poston said.
Poston said in a written statement the plea agreement “was reached after numerous meetings with the surviving members of the victims’ family. The sentence was agreed to by all.”
Cindy Miller, who is the stepgrandmother of the couple’s daughter, said family members agreed to the plea deal because they wanted justice served without the child having to take the stand and without family members having to worry about feeling like they were put on trial themselves.
Wearing handcuffs and a red jumpsuit, Neal said very little in court. Morris said Neal had a difficult upbringing. Murray County resident John Buckner said he and his wife helped fill the roles of parents for Neal — and they tried two days before the murders to get him to come live with them.
“He would call us ‘dad’ and ‘mom,’” Buckner said. “He just never had a family like that.”
Buckner said he was “shocked” after he learned Neal was wanted for murder and tried to help authorities locate him because he was afraid of what would happen to his adopted son.
Buckner trusted Neal to provide for Neal’s family. Neal was a hard worker, once a new car sales manager at Courtesy Dodge before it closed down, Buckner said, then a business owner who bought a lot of rental property and provided well for Jessica and their daughter.
“That wasn’t him that did that,” Buckner said of the murders. “I mean, I know he did it ... He was a good man. He would do anything for anybody, and I just couldn’t believe that he had done it.”