Newsom reverses parole for Highland man convicted of killing his pregnant wife

HIGHLAND, Calif. (KABC) -- Gov. Gavin Newsom has overturned a parole board decision and denied the release of a Highland man who was convicted in the horrific 1997 murder of his pregnant wife.

Newsom, who had commuted the sentence of Rodney Patrick McNeal earlier last year, instead said he still poses a threat to society.

"I acknowledge Mr. McNeal has undertaken significant rehabilitation efforts in prison," wrote Newsom in his decision. "I also acknowledge that the clinician who evaluated Mr. McNeal in 2020 found that represented a low risk for future violence. While I commend Mr. McNeal for his efforts, I find that he is unsuitable for parole at this time."

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Rodney McNeal was initially sentenced to 30-years-to-life in prison for the March 1997 murders of his wife and unborn daughter in Highland.

The murder victim was 39-year-old Debra McNeal, who was seven months pregnant at the time of her death. More than two decades later, the victim's daughter, Shantel Haynes, is still horrified by the details of the crime.

"My mother was beaten, stabbed, strangled, dragged by her hair and drowned," said Haynes, who has fought for years to keep her mother's killer behind bars after he was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

"I wanted him to be in prison, and to really think and learn about the damage that he did to not only my mother and sister, but the collateral victims," she said.

But Haynes said keeping him in prison has been a difficult battle, especially after the California Innocence Project got involved in 2006. Haynes said the group ignored the fact that her mother was Native American in their push to free the convicted killer.

"The California Innocence Project decided to label my mother as a white woman, instead of stating that she was an Oglala Lakota woman. So, they're kind of changing the narrative to fit their needs," said Haynes.

The California Innocence Project declined to comment on the case. On its website they claim that not only does case evidence not support McNeal's conviction, but that they believe McNeal's half-brother is the one who is guilty of the crime.

In early 2020, Newsom commuted McNeal's sentence saying he "has committed himself to his self-improvement." A parole board later granted his release, although Newsom would ultimately overturn its decision.

At a news conference Monday morning, San Bernardino County District Attorney Jason Anderson commended Gov. Newsom for his decision to reverse the parole board's decision and keep McNeal behind bars.

"One of the things that will continue to concern us is the fact that Mr. McNeal has given at least three different versions of who may have committed these murders," said Anderson. "All of those have been reviewed and debunked by appellate courts, and he's never taken responsibility for what he's done."

But both Anderson and Shantel Haynes admit that the battle is far from over. It's believed that McNeal could come up for parole again later this year.

"It's likely that within six months he'll come up again, whether that's a consistent pattern, we just don't know," said Anderson. "We will continue to oppose it again, not only on behalf of Shantel, but as I said there's been no indication at all for taking responsibility."

Shantel Haynes said the governor's decision is a relief but knows it's not over yet.

"I do completely understand this is just one victory of the many battles we're going to have to go against," Haynes said.
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