Leni has continued to follow the fate of Howard Neal since our visit to Parchman state penitentiary in 2004. Here is her latest report. 

Howard Neal: update on events since 2005

In early 2007 Howard completed a new batch of IQ tests in order for the Mississippi Attorney General to decide whether he was clever enough to be executed. 

The US supreme court had ruled in a test case that killing murderers with an IQ below 70 would constitute a 'cruel and unusual punishment' since their retardation made it impossible for them to understand either the court procedures or the true nature of their crimes.

Howard's IQ had always registered around 54 from the time he was at elementary school until he was convicted in his early thirties.   The Attorney General believed that Howard was faking his low IQ, so he insisted that Howard also take a specially designed test which would supposedly detect any malingering or pretence at being of very low IQ.

Howard wrote to me that he was determined to do his best on these tests and was very excited at the prospect of leaving the prison for a day. He loved the journey to Whitfield Hospital and noted lots of changes in the scenery since his incarceration.  He wanted to prove how well he could do, not realising that an improved performance might be his final death sentence.

In fact his IQ proved to be exactly the same as it had been throughout his life. Even his recently acquired literacy hadn't impacted on his performance, which I had feared might push him into the danger zone for execution. So huge relief all round.

The Mississippi AG was predictably chagrined to be thwarted in his determination to have Howard executed, and a long delay ensued before Howard was granted a hearing to have his death sentence revoked. There was an even longer delay for Howard to get his re-sentencing hearing, which eventually took place in summer 2008. Sadly he was sentenced to the new penalty of life without parole, which he would never have got had he received a non-capital sentence back in 1983: he would be out of prison having served his time under that system.

So now Howard is off death row, and in another nearby building. He is allowed to associate with other prisoners; he is working in the prison kitchens which he loves, and he has plenty of opportunities to go 'on the yard', which is going outside in the fresh air. 

He has had his colour TV taken away as this was a privilege for death row inmates. But he still has his cell to himself, which is a relief because he is very vulnerable to the mood and disposition of fellow inmates. His lawyer, Jim Craig, who worked so hard to save Howard, hopes that eventually Howard will be sent to a more appropriate institution where he will not be at risk from abuse. At the moment this could be a long time coming. 

So the outcome is as good as the system allows. But it is a shocking indictment of the US judiciary that an innocent man, against whom there was no real evidence, will have to spend the rest of his life in prison because he was an easy target for the prosecutors, and believed that if he told the truth, he would be exonerated.

Leni Gillman

March 2009