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State to pay victims’ families $1M over suspect’s parole

By BLAKE PATERSON Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The state of Alabama will pay $1 million to three slaying victims’ families who contend that the man accused of killing them had wrongly been paroled, the state attorney general said Friday.

The families of Colton Lee, Marie Martin and Martha Reliford allege that the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles should not have paroled Jimmy O’Neal Spencer and failed to properly supervise him once he was released.

“No amount of money is enough to compensate these families for their losses,” Tommy James, the families’ lawyer, said in an interview. “I think going forward, now that this part is behind them, they can focus on the criminal trial of Spencer where obviously they’re hoping and praying for swift and severe justice.”

The $1 million settlement is the maximum damages allowed under state law and will be divided among the three families. James said the current ceiling on compensation is a “shame” and the law should change to better protect victims.

Spencer is accused of killing all three in Guntersville in July 2018.

As WHNT reported, investigators say Martin was looking after her great-grandson, 7-year-old Colton Lee, at her home when she was strangled and stabbed. Colton was killed by blunt force trauma. Reliford, Martin’s neighbor, had been hit in the head with the back flat part of a hatchet and stabbed days earlier, investigators say.

Spencer has been charged with capital murder in their deaths. Court records show his next appearance will be in September. A trial date hasn’t been set.

Alabama Attorney Gen. Steve Marshall described Spencer as a “career criminal” in a news release Friday. Spencer initially entered prison in the 1980s, convicted and imprisoned for numerous serious property and violent crimes. He successfully escaped prison several times. On two separate occasions, Spencer was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Despite his record, Spencer was granted parole in November 2017 and released the following January, Marshall said. He was supposed to remain in a Birmingham homeless shelter for six months but left after only three weeks.

Marshall said Spencer traveled to Guntersville, where he had several run-ins with law enforcement, including resisting arrest, illegal possession of a firearm and possession of drug paraphernalia, though his parole was not revoked.

Gov. Kay Ivey placed a 75-day moratorium on early paroles in October partially in response to the charges against Spencer. She also replaced the chair of the board of pardons and paroles and ordered the agency to produce a detailed, corrective action plan.

Legislation working its way through the state legislature would give the governor the power to appoint the director of the parole board, as well as put into place sentence minimums that inmates must serve before becoming eligible for parole.

If passed, inmates convicted of murder, rape or certain other crimes could not be considered for parole before they have served 85% of their sentence, or 15 years, whichever is less, according to the legislation. The proposal has received support from both Marshall and Ivey.

“I am angry, certainly at Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, but I am also angry that a process designed to protect the public from deviant criminals like Spencer utterly failed them, as well as little Colton,” said Marshall, who recused himself from settlement negotiations because he knew two of the victims.

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