Victim's family: Life sentences won't close murder case
Sonny Neal answers questions during his January 18, 2013 deposition.
WHITFIELD COUNTY, GA. (WRCB) -- Billy Miller can live with his son-in-law Sonny Neal getting life without parole, for pleading guilty to murdering his daughter Jessica Miller Neal, and her grandfather Don Shedd in their home in Dawnville, Georgia May 23.
"You want death, " he says. "But from what we were going to have to do, I wasn't willing to do."
Jessica's 9-year-old daughter Maddie, whom Sonny Neal had adopted, would have had to testify.
"She actually was in the house the night of the murder."
But almost nine months after the crimes, and not quite a week since Neal took a plea deal, several questions won't rest.
"Somebody helped him in my mind," Miller says. "Helped him survive eight days."
Neal was arrested in Varnell, some 14 miles from the murder scene.
"He was not in the shape of a man that had been out in the woods for eight days all by himself," Miller insists.
"There's no accomplices here," Neal's attorney, Marcus Morris, told reporters in February. "If you had seen what I've seen, there's no accomplices here."
"Quite the contrary," GBI agent Dan Sims told Channel 3 via phone. "We took him to the hospital for dehydration and a kidney infection."
"The case remains open, but indications are that Sonny Neal acted alone," District Attorney Bert Poston told Channel 3.
Apparently, however, Neal was able to communicate with his granddaughter in the days and weeks following his capture, despite her status as a material witness.
"Miranda (Neal's daughter) would put me on when he would call," Maddie Miller tells Channel 3 off-camera.
"I've talked to him about a dozen times. He'd just ask how I was, and tell me that he loved me and missed me."
Sheriff Scott Chitwood confirms that Neal has been able to place telephone calls and accept visitors during his time in the Whitfield County Jail, before and after he announced his plea deal last month.
"He was not restricted as to who he talked to, or what he talked about," Sheriff Chitwood says.
In open court last Tuesday, Neal listened as Poston offered an overview of the prosecution's case against him. Namely, that he killed his wife Jessica, by stabbing her multiple times in her chest, back and abdomen, and ended Shedd's life with blunt force trauma; multiple blows to his head with a pipe wrench.
But he offered only three words when Chief Judge William T. Boyett asked if the account were true: "Yes, your Honor."
The first time Billy Miller heard Neal say anything on the subject came January 18, in a deposition stemming from a lawsuit over life insurance. Channel 3 Eyewitness News first obtained a copy of the video in February.
"I take the Fifth, I will not discuss my criminal case with you," Neal answered, when Miller's attorney, Genevieve Frazier, asked him for an account of the crime.
Sonny and Jessica Neal had taken out life insurance policies on each other, $500,000 apiece, Frazier explained.
"Sonny was the beneficiary, but the Slayer Statute doesn't allow a criminal to profit from his crimes," Frazier tells Channel 3. "The moment he pleaded guilty, he forfeited any right to collect."
The proceeds, if payable, would go to Jessica Neal's estate, Frazier explains.
"Maddie couldn't have collected as an heir, because Sonny adopted her," Frazier says.
Since late September, Maddie has been Miller's daughter.
"We (his second wife Cindy) have adopted her," Miller says. "But it's been $250,000 worth of lawyer fees, and psychological exams."
His granddaughter spent three months in the custody of a family friend, Ambra Stroud. Neal's grown daughter, Miranda Buckner, also sought custody.
"It was about money," Miller insists, "not what was best for Maddie."
Stroud and Buckner couldn't disagree more.
"Jessica and Sonny both wanted me to be her guardian," Stroud tells Channel 3 in a telephone interview.
"We backed off when court officers told us it was a battle we couldn't afford to keep fighting."
"My father wanted, and I want what's best for her," Buckner says. "I would like to find some way to be in her life."
In his January 18 deposition, Neal confirms that he first signed over rights to Stroud, and then Buckner, finally agreeing not to contest his in-laws' adoption of Maddie.
Sonny Neal remains in the Whitfield County Jail, awaiting processing into Georgia's Department of Corrections.
"That could happen any day," GBI agent Dan Sims says.
Day-by-day is exactly how Miller describes his own life, and that of his now-adopted daughter.
"We're trying to give her (Maddie) the best life we can," he says.
"Hopefully, somebody will see this. That will bring justice and closure to our family."