VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: ‘If It Wasn’t for O.J., I’d Probably Be on Death Row’

Charles LeBlanc via flickr

by S. Neal

It was 1994. I don’t remember which month because it was so long ago, but I was standing in the courtroom at the Compton courthouse with my public defender, preparing to go through jury selection for my second penalty phase. I was facing the death penalty.

You see, earlier that year I stood trial for a double murder and was found guilty. Since the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office was pursuing the death penalty in my case, the same jury that found me guilty would have to decide whether I deserved the ultimate punishment—death by lethal injection. To do this, they had to undergo a process similar to a trial called the “penalty phase.” During this phase, the jury would hear witnesses from both sides. The DA would try to convince the jury that I deserved to die, and my public defender would try to show that I, a 21-year-old man, should be spared. The jury hung nine to three in favor of life without parole, but the DA’s office was determined to put me, Sean Neal, a young black man from the ghettos, on Death Row. So, they exercised their power to put me through a second penalty phase. But this time there would be a different jury.

I remember going into the courtroom prepared for jury selection. I was sitting at the table with my public defender and his paralegal on our side of the room. The only people there were the bailiff, the court reporter, and the district attorney. Finally, the judge came in to commence the proceedings, beginning with voir dire, which are questions that would be asked of prospective jurors. I was only half paying attention when I heard my attorney mention something about O.J. Simpson getting ready to pick his trial jury at the same time we were picking ours. My ears suddenly perked up.

Apparently, my public defender was requesting that the jury be asked, “Do you think it’s fair that the State of California is seeking the death penalty in Mr. Neal’s case, but not in the O.J. Simpson case, even though both involve double murders?”

Oh wow! I thought. The DA’s office was going hard on me while at the same time they were giving O.J. a pass. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think I was in that courtroom for even 30 minutes before the DA told the court that their office had decided not to pursue a second penalty phase in my case, and that they would be satisfied with me being sentenced to life without parole.

It’s amazing how things happen. It is truly crazy how the stars align. Ever since I got found guilty of murder, I prayed and prayed to not get the death penalty—and then O.J. came along and I was spared. To this day, I believe that the reason I was spared had to do with divine intervention, and because the DA believed it would be difficult to find a jury to put me on the Row when O.J., a celebrity, was being spared.

Who knows, yet I can say one thing: If it wasn’t for O.J. I would probably be on Death Row.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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