Charmin' Billy

July 28, 1999, Jefferson County Detention Center: William Lee Neal walks in with a grin on his face and his hand extended. "I'm Cody Neal," he says, shaking hands like a used-car salesman, warm and ingratiating. "Cody's a nickname...My friends call me Cody."

He glances through the glass partition to the left, smiles and exchanges nods with another inmate in the cubicle next door. "He's a great guy...brings me my food every morning," Neal says of his younger compadre, who laughs wildly at whatever his weepy mother is saying through the thick Plexiglas that separates her from her son.

There's no such barrier in this room. Neal has demanded a contact visit because he doesn't want "other people" to hear him tell his story. The request was denied by jail authorities at first; he is, after all, a confessed mass murderer. But after Neal complained to jail higher-ups, the request was quickly granted. Whatever Cody wants, as long as he behaves himself and nothing delays his death-penalty trial in September.

Manipulating, always manipulating. That's "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.

Because he's defending himself, he's already received a number of "special" considerations. Pro se defendants are always allowed a certain number of hours in the jail's law library to prepare their defenses; in Neal's case, the jail brought in extra personnel so that he could spend entire nights in the library, sometimes with a fellow inmate to help him make copies and collate his material. The court purchased a special tape recorder so that he could listen to taped interviews and make duplicates (and pass extra time listening to music). He also has a VCR and television so that he can watch videos, such as the tape of his confession; he's allowed to keep law books, legal documents and all sorts of writing materials -- provided by the court -- in his cell.

Then there's the cell phone. Robert Lee Riggan Jr., the last killer in Jefferson County to try to represent himself, had to use a public telephone in the jail for frequent discussions of his case with the prosecutor. And when Riggan was interviewed by the press, it was through Plexiglas, holding a telephone to his ear.

Neal, however, can use a cellular phone to call out ten minutes a day from his cell. He'd entered a motion claiming he had a lot of out-of-state people -- friends and family -- that he might call as witnesses. But while he's supposed to use the phone to prepare his defense, he's also used it to call a new girlfriend in Arizona and to contact the press. He's rung up huge collect telephone bills, including one for nearly a thousand dollars, talking to the one sibling in his family who has any contact with him. Still, ten minutes doesn't go too far, he complains, and he's petitioning the court for more airtime.

Neal takes a seat on one of the two stools that rise out of the floor like gray mushrooms; between them, an equally drab and secured table juts from the wall. The muted light of the single fluorescent tube in the ceiling and the interview room's brain-gray cinderblock walls do little to improve his complexion; he has the pallor of a corpse. The skin around his eyes is puffy, as if he doesn't sleep too well these days. Only the bright-orange jail jumpsuit and his voice -- a gravelly baritone with a Western rumble you might expect from an old cowboy -- give him any color. And his eyes: Those wide-set blue eyes are a bit too pale, somewhat disconcerting...but really, only if you know what he did last summer.

Neal says he wants to tell his story -- and to keep telling it as he heads down a road that he expects to end with his execution. But he doesn't want a defense attorney, appointed by the court to advise him, to use this story to try to save his life, or for the prosecution to use it in its efforts to kill him. So he hasn't told them much about his life, he confides, and will have to be careful how much he reveals now.

Already the truth is being twisted. There are "lies in the press," he says. Accounts of what he did -- "bad as it was" -- have been "sensationalized."

Neal sees himself as "owning up." This is why he says he pleaded guilty in February to three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of sexual assault, and seven other counts that include felony menacing and kidnapping. "We need to end the violence by taking responsibility for our actions," he says earnestly. "As some old Turk once said, 'No matter how long you've gone down the wrong road, turn back, turn back.'"

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Steve Jackson