Man charged in Guntersville murders was paroled in January despite life sentence, DA’s 2013 warning

GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. -- Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who is facing capital murder charges in the killings of three people in Guntersville, spent several years in Alabama prisons, but far fewer than his sentencing called for. He was paroled and released from prison in January.

And his release came as a terrible surprise for a local district attorney who’d argued against it, five years ago.

Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said he was unaware of Spencer’s release. Rushing told WHNT News 19 he can’t find any record of notification from the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles about Spencer’s November hearing.

Rushing said he learned that Spencer was out of prison when he got a news alert saying Spencer had been arrested for the July 13 murders of Marie Martin, her 7-year-old great-grandson Colton Lee, and Martha Dell Reliford.

Dating back to the mid-80s, Spencer spent much of the last three decades in prison. The Alabama Department of Corrections provided this narrative on Spencer to WHNT News 19:

“Spencer, 52, was first sentenced to prison in July 1984 to one year for third-degree burglary in Franklin County.  Later he was charged and convicted of a prison escape in September 1984 and received a 10-year sentence.   Spencer again received another 10-year sentence to run consecutively with his prior sentences for a second escape conviction in May 1985.

 “Spencer was paroled by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles in July 1988.   His parole was revoked in January 1989 for a second-degree burglary conviction in Franklin County.  He received a life sentence in February 1990 following the conviction.

 “Spencer again escaped from prison on March 14, 1993, and was recaptured May 16, 1993.   He was charged and convicted of unlawful breaking and entering a vehicle and third-degree burglary during his escape and received two 16-year sentences for each conviction to run consecutively with his life sentence.”

 “While serving his prison sentence, Spencer was charged and convicted of second-degree assault of an inmate and received a 15-year sentence.

 “Spencer received a second parole from the Board of Pardons and Paroles and was released from prison on January 22, 2018.”

The sentences add up to basically 67 years, plus life. But altogether, he only served about 32 years total.

And that’s the reality of Alabama’s overcrowded prison system, says Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard.

“We only have so much prison space, and we only have so much funding for the prisons, and we have X number of people, that are, that are felons,” he said. “And, if we only have so much room, a decision has to be who we’re going to keep and who we’ll let go.”

Spencer’s record includes mostly non-violent offenses, and that apparently helped him get out

Broussard says, “The controlling factor was it a violent crime, or not, that you committed?”

But, Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing said there’s more to the Spencer story. In 2013 he sent a letter to the parole board opposing Spencer’s release, calling him dangerous. Rushing told the board Spencer had to be shot by a Franklin County resident to stop him during a burglary attempt in 1989.

Broussard said for crime victims, the releases of convicted criminals are hard to understand, even in what are considered nonviolent cases.

“It would probably shock a lot of the public,” Broussard said. “If you’re the man whose house has been broken into and they stole everything you got, and then you look, ‘There’s the guy who did it, out on the street,’ nine months later. You don’t understand that.”

Spencer’s life sentence was for a 2nd degree burglary, but it was under the three-strikes system, basically life in prison for a third felony, which proved to be unworkable, Broussard said. So now, the corrections system focus is on prison reform, he said.

“And all of that is just another way of saying, the old way was jamming up our prisons, and we don’t have any more space, and there may be federal intervention if we don’t do something about it.”