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SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — On Friday, Jan. 29, California Gov. Gavin Newsom reversed parole for Rodney Patrick McNeal, distinguishing that his ex-wife — Debra Black Crow — occurred in the context of a national epidemic of violence against Native women. McNeal was convicted of two counts of 15-years-to-life for second degree murder on May 3, 2000. His victim was a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and was nearly seven months pregnant at the time she was stabbed and strangled to death by her former husband, who was a probation officer at the time. 

When Gov. Newsom previously approved McNeal’s request for clemency, he cited McNeal has "committed himself to his self-improvement" while incarcerated. 

Native News Online reported on Nov. 21, 2020, that Gov. Newsom granted McNeal a commutation earlier in 2020, which made him eligible for parole seven years earlier than his original sentence of 30 years. He was later granted parole on a split decision and was scheduled to be released on Nov. 13, 2020. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, McNeal remained in prison and Debra’s family, led by her daughter Shantel Haynes, advocated for him to stay in prison.

“Most people live their lives with the assumption that a family will heal once a guilty verdict is handed down to a perpetrator,” said Shantel Haynes to Native News Online. “I am a living example of how that is not the case. For almost two and a half decades, I’ve had to fight tirelessly to keep my mother’s murderer where he belongs — behind bars.”

Not long after McNeal began his sentence, the California Innocence Project (CIP) took an interest in his case and began preparing and filing his post-conviction reliefs available to him by law. According to the organization’s website, the CIP focuses on criminal justice reform and advocating for the wrongfully convicted. Each post-conviction relief was denied by the court, yet CIP continued to advocate on his behalf. 

“I had to learn the meaning of appeals, habeas corpus, clemency, first amendment rights, statute of limitations, law amendments, commuted sentences and revised protocols throughout this process,” said Haynes. “Even through the unsubstantiated evidence provided by the California Innocence Project, the facts of the actual case, the testimony of the witnesses and the ultimate power of human empathy prevailed.”

“From the beginning of the investigation, Mr. McNeal began manipulating the system,” former San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos told Native News Online. "He knew the criminal justice system inside and out." 

The California Innocence Project denied to comment on Gov. Newsom’s decision to reverse McNeal’s parole in an email to Native News Online. 

Debra’s family heard about developments of McNeal’s case secondhand and were never informed by the governor’s office that the case was being considered for commutation or parole, according to Haynes, which was a key reason McNeal’s parole was reversed. 

The repeated claims of innocence, combined with multiple efforts to reverse his conviction, has left Debra’s family feeling helpless for years. That is when Haynes contacted the National Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) organization based out of Washington. MMIW directed her to contact the South Dakota Tribal Relations Committee. 

After being contacted by MMIW, South Dakota State Re. Peri Pourier, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, immediately took interest and shared the case details with other members of the South Dakota Tribal Relations Committee including State Rep. Tamara St. John. Together, they organized and submitted letters to the State of California from both (former) Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Julian Bear Runner and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier advocating for her justice and addressing the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“This effort grew to include voices from Tribal Nations, Tribal leaders and Legislators from the State of South Dakota and beyond working to end violence against Indigenous women,” said State Rep. St. John to Native News Online. “As a Native woman of the Great Sioux Nation, I felt it was important to speak for our Lakota sister who lost her life and the life of her unborn baby at the hands of Mr. McNeal.” 

“Mr. McNeal’s violent conduct toward Ms. Blackcrow McNeal not only ended her life, but also had a devastating impact on her family, community, and Tribal Nation,” said Gov. Newsom in his reversal decision on Friday, Jan. 29, 2021. 

“I have considered the evidence in the record that is relevant to whether Mr. McNeal is currently dangerous,” said Newsom. “When considered as a whole, I find the evidence shows that he currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time. Therefore, I reverse the decision to parole Mr. McNeal.”

The reversal is being celebrated by Debra’s family and her advocates, with San Bernardino County hosting a press conference Monday morning including Debra’s daughter Shantel Haynes. 

“I want to give thanks to California Governor Gavin Newsom and his team, former San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos, South Dakota State Representative Tamara St. John, Deborah Matubee Simpson, State Dakota State Representative Peri Pourier, Jason Anderson, Connie Lasky, Jason Keck, Darren Thompson, Melanie Stoneman, Kimberly Miles, and the countless other change.org supporters,” said Shantel Haynes in a statement to the media. “This reversal shows that justice can be retained for domestic violence victims, including collateral victims, missing and murdered Indigenous women, and proves that people in law enforcement will be held accountable.” 

“Thank you to California Gov. Newsom for listening and understanding the details and cause for this reversal,” said South Dakota State Rep. Peri Pourier to Native News Online. “This one win throughout the countless unheard and nameless lost Native sisters across the country brings the world right-side up, even if it’s just for a moment.”

“On behalf of Debra Black Crow’s family and my people — the Oglala Lakota Oyate — we celebrate the strength and resilience of Debra’s daughter Shantel Haynes and the women that stood with her in echoing Debra’s need for justice,” Pourier said. 

“The reversal, no doubt, speaks to the many silenced voices of Native women, whose lives often end brutally and whose stories do not include justice,” said St. John. 

Debra’s story was pitched to True Crime Daily Podcast — a Warner Brothers Production — by her daughter and they agreed to produce a full story on the case, giving Haynes the opportunity to share her mother's story with millions of people. Details on the upcoming podcast will be shared when they become available. 

According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, Native women experience domestic violence at rates far exceeding women of other ethnicities — more than 50 percent higher than the next most victimized demographic. Murder rates of Native women are more than 10 times the national average. 

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About The Author
Author: Darren Thompson
Darren Thompson (Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe) is a freelance journalist and based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where he also contributes to Unicorn Riot, an alternative media publication. Thompson has reported on political unrest, tribal sovereignty, and Indigenous issues for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Indian Country Today, Native News Online, Powwows.com and Unicorn Riot. He has contributed to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Voice of America on various Indigenous issues in international conversation. He has a bachelor’s degree in Criminology & Law Studies from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.