When Kenneth Neal went on trial for the murder of his estranged girlfriend in 1996, he was not the only person in the courtroom recently accused of a crime. His court-appointed defense attorney was a convicted child pornographer whose fall from grace had been widely publicized in the same rural county just a few years before Neal’s trial. The poor defense Neal received was likely the reason he spent 19 years on death row, despite having an IQ of 69.
Quick Facts: Kenneth Neal
- Race: African American
- County: Rockingham
- Date of Crime: April 13, 1995
- Victim: Amanda Lynn McCurdy, 27, African American
- Conviction Date: February 26, 1996
- Execution Date: Resentenced to life without parole in March 2015
- Errors: Neal’s appointed defense attorney was a locally infamous convicted child pornographer who failed to present evidence of Neal’s low IQ, along with any other potentially mitigating factors, at trial.
Only a small percentage of people who commit murder are tried capitally. No one on trial for his life should be represented by a convicted felon – especially in a small town where the lawyer’s crime prompted broad public outrage. Any hope that the jury would listen impartially to Neal’s defense was dashed when a notorious child pornographer was appointed to defend him.
Neal was convicted in the 1995 killing of Amanda McCurdy, his longtime girlfriend and the mother of his child. McCurdy had recently asked Neal to move out of the home they shared, and Neal was unable to cope with the loss of his relationship, home, and child. One of 11 children of a tenant farmer, Neal grew up in extreme poverty and dropped out of school before completing the ninth grade. He could not afford an attorney, so the court assigned him Douglas Osborne.
Osborne was a notorious figure. In 1989, while serving as an assistant district attorney, he was caught in a federal sting and convicted of buying sex tapes involving children as young as 7 and 8. The tapes portrayed incestuous sex between siblings and their parents. His arrest received more publicity than most, because Osborne came from a well-known Rockingham County family and was a prosecutor at the time of his arrest.
In the months between his arrest and trial, Osborne’s legal troubles earned him multiple front-page stories in local newspapers, which followed the case from the initial charges all the way through to conviction. Osborne spent a year in federal prison and had his law license suspended for five years.
Osborne finished his required community service and probation and regained his law license just a year before Neal’s trial.
Interviews with jurors after the trial only confirmed what anyone might have guessed. The jurors knew about Osborne’s crimes and discussed them as they were weighing Neal’s fate. One juror said Osborne’s conviction was “the most disgusting type of crime there is” and that Neal “could not have done worse” than to have Osborne as his attorney.
During the trial, Osborne failed to present evidence that could have spared Neal a death sentence, including his low IQ, extreme poverty, and history of family violence.
Osborne did only a cursory investigation into Neal’s background and presented no expert testimony about his low IQ. The only testimony about Neal’s mental health came from a psychologist not licensed to practice in the United States without supervision.
In March 2015, nearly two decades after the jury sentenced him to die, Neal was resentenced to life with no possibility of parole because of his intellectual disability. Had he been appointed a competent attorney at his first trial, he might never have been on death row.