County of Conviction: San Bernardino
Convicted of: Two counts of Second Degree Murder
Sentence: 30 to Life
Year of Conviction: 2000
On March 10, 1997, Rodney Patrick McNeal, a San Bernardino County probation officer, arrived home just before 12:30 p.m. to take his wife, Debra, to a doctor’s appointment. There, he discovered Debra, who was six-months pregnant, brutally murdered and submerged in water in the bathtub of the master bedroom. Patrick tried to lift Debra out of the tub, but could not. After unsuccessfully trying to find the house cordless phone, he ran over to a neighbor’s home and asked them to call 9-1-1. When police arrived, they discovered that the house had been trashed; furniture had been slashed, a wall unit knocked over, and a trail of blood led from the living room to the master bathroom. Police determined Debra had been beaten and stabbed, ultimately dying of manual strangulation.
Based on reports that Patrick and Debra had a volatile marriage and the fact that police had visited their home before for domestic disputes, the police arrested Patrick for Debra’s murder. The police theorized that Patrick and Debra had argued when he arrived home to take her to her doctor’s appointment and, in a fit of rage, killed her.
The timeline of events spoke otherwise. Based on phone records and eyewitness testimony, Patrick was at his office until 12:15 p.m., arriving home just before 12:30 p.m., shortly before the 9-1-1 call was placed. The first police officers arrived at the scene at about 12:32 p.m. It would have been impossible for Patrick to kill Debra and ransack the house in that timeframe. Further, the blood spatter patterns in the living room indicated that whoever beat and killed Debra would have Debra’s blood on their clothing. Patrick had no such blood on him or his clothing. Finally, there were unidentified hairs and fibers found on Debra.
Unfortunately, despite the compelling evidence of innocence, the jury convicted Patrick and a court sentenced him to 30 years-to-life in prison.
The California Innocence Project commenced an investigation into Patrick’s claim of innocence. In July 2006, the California Innocence Project filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus on Patrick’s behalf. In the petition, the Project presented evidence of third-party culpability. Namely, that Patrick’s half-brother, Jeffery “Jeff” West, killed Debra. Eerily, Debra’s murder had similarities to other murders Jeff had committed. Upon killing his victims, he would place them in the bathtub.
At an evidentiary hearing in front of a San Bernardino Superior Court judge, witness Cary McGill, a friend of Jeff, testified that Jeff had described Debra’s murder to him in detail. According to Cary, Jeff said that he beat Debra until she was unconscious, then he dragged her into the bathroom. Testimony corroborated by the evidence discovered at the scene. Patrick’s half-sister, Ebony Grant, also half-sister to Jeff, testified at the evidentiary hearing that Jeff had confessed to killing Debra. Ebony felt horrible that she had been carrying this secret around for so long, but she was afraid Jeff would kill her if she told anyone. When called to the stand by the California Innocence Project, Jeff took the 5th.
Despite strong evidence that Patrick is innocent, the San Bernardino Superior Court judge declined to reverse Patrick’s conviction. Patrick continues to fight his case by seeking DNA testing of evidence at the crime scene. Testing that will, in all probability, show that Jeff murdered Debra and her unborn child. In the meantime, Patrick remains in prison for a crime he did not commit, indeed, a crime where the true culprit is known and roams free.
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