A blind and crippled Little Rock man who said he fatally stabbed his fiancee mistakenly thinking she was an attacking intruder was sentenced to life in prison Thursday night after a Pulaski County jury rejected the 63-year-old parolee’s self-defense claims and found him guilty as charged of first-degree murder.
A life sentence was the only punishment available for Pulaski County Circuit Judge Karen Whatley to impose given that Rickey Lewis Neal was deemed a violent repeat offender with a criminal record that stretches back to 1976 and includes convictions for rape, armed robbery, false imprisonment, manslaughter and domestic violence. This will be the seventh time he’s been sentenced to prison.
There was never any question during Neal’s two-day trial that he had killed Alice Faye Cawley of Little Rock in a Christmas Eve 2020 attack at the couple’s hotel room across the street at the time from the North Little Rock Police Department.
Police found the 58-year-old mother of two dead, stabbed 11 times, on the floor with a blood-flecked Neal sitting next to her. Neal told police he had cut her thinking an intruder had been in the room with them.
The question for the nine-man, three-woman jury to resolve was why Neal had killed her. Defense attorneys Leslie Borgognoni and Andrew Thornton called Cawley’s death a tragic accident, as Neal has always maintained. The lawyers presented no evidence on Neal’s behalf and he did not testify.
Jurors could have convicted Neal of lesser charges like manslaughter, second-degree murder or misdemeanor negligent homicide, but Borgognoni and Thornton argued he should be found innocent on self-defense grounds, given that he thought he was defending the couple from a late-night intruder.
Neal had reason to fear an attack, they said. Diabetes has left him almost completely blind while forcing the amputation of his lower left leg, restricting him to using a walker or wheelchair.
Further, Cawley had awoken him to state she’d heard someone fiddling with their door shortly after she’d seen a strange man lurking around their room, the public defenders said, citing Neal’s video-recorded statement to police, which was shown to the jury.
When Neal was suddenly grabbed from behind, he lashed out with his blade, not realizing he’d been stabbing Cawley until she collapsed with her long hair brushing his body, causing him to realize he’d been striking her, the defense said.
Neal had told police Cawley was “his baby,” who looked out for him better than his own family, with testimony that she’d had to help him in the shower and use the restroom. They had gotten engaged shortly before her death.
But jurors sided with prosecutors Jeanna Sherrill and Justin Harper who said Neal deliberately killed Cawley because she was leaving him. The pattern of Cawley’s wounds — six to the back, including four deep enough to pierce her lungs, one to her chest, and the others to her arms — showed that she’d been restrained during the attack, they said.
And while Neal might be blind, his hearing is good enough that he should have been able to hear Cawley crying out in pain as he struck her with the blade over and over again, they said.
Further, she’d twice called a friend to come get her that night, stating in her second call — a voicemail that the friend missed — that she needed out fast because Neal was going to kill her, prosecutors said. Cawley’s walking cane was found outside the hotel room, showing that she’d been trying to get out, they said.
But what prosecutors called the most damning proof of Neal’s intentions was found in his pockets by police: the engagement ring he’d given her only a few weeks earlier. Jurors deliberated about 54 minutes to find Neal guilty as charged.
The scenario outlined by prosecutors and Neal’s claim of harming a woman he loved after mistaking her for an attacker echo the last time he was sentenced to prison following a 2015 jury trial in which he received 25 years for second-degree domestic battering and felony fleeing for beating a woman bloody by clubbing her with a broken pistol and a decorative sea shell.
The woman, Betty Frazier of Little Rock, testified that Neal got violent when she broke off their engagement shortly before Christmas 2013 because of his temper tantrums. Neal responded by attacking her, first with the gun then the decorative shell. One of her teeth was knocked out, and she suffered a 4-inch long cut to her head, which bled so profusely it left a trail from her Little Rock home to the neighbor’s across the street where she went to get help.
Neal, who had yet to lose his sight or leg, told jurors he’d fallen asleep in the couple’s bed while drinking only to be awakened in the dark with his arms and legs bound and with someone he couldn’t see beating on him.
Neal said he got loose and fought back, not realizing that Frazier was his assailant until he turned the bedroom light on. He told jurors he never hit her with anything other than his hands and that he’d tried to help her once he saw she was hurt, but she ran from him.
Neal also denied asking Frazier to marry him, saying he cared for her after living with her but loved his wife more. He told jurors he’d fled from police because he knew officers would never believe him.
The jury acquitted Neal of aggravated robbery for taking Frazier’s car to flee police, a verdict that spared him a life sentence then due to his status as a repeat violent offender.
The 25-year sentence required Neal serve at least four years before qualifying for parole. He was approved for early release in September 2020, about 18 months after he first qualified for parole in March 2019.
Court records show Neal’s criminal history began about three months before his 18th birthday.
Neal was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1977 for the armed robbery of four men followed by the gunpoint rape and robbery of a woman on Gaines Street in Little Rock a week later in September 1976.
In January 1992, Neal, 33, was convicted of manslaughter for the September 1991 shotgun slaying of 16-year-old Billy Brunson Jr. in the 1700 block of West 15th Street. Jurors reduced the charge from first-degree murder.
He received a 45-year sentence for false imprisonment and felon in possession of a firearm in August 1996 for abducting his first wife, Deborah Anne Morgan Neal, in March 1995 after chasing her down at their Sweet Home residence and forcing her to leave with him. They had been married nine months.
Neal pleaded guilty in August 2004 to second-degree battery in exchange for a nine-year prison sentence for cutting the throat of Darrell Profit, now 52, a fellow inmate at the Wrightsville prison unit.
He was sentenced to five years in prison in June 2008 for aggravated assault and terroristic threatening after his December 2007 arrest for trying to run over his wife of nine months at 4112 W. 24th St. in Little Rock. Louberta Neal said he had slapped and punched her and tried to set her clothes on fire in the front yard. He was married to Neal when he beat up Frazier.