By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – In anything approaching a rational world, James Neal Freeman would be 29 years old now, pursuing a career and maybe even enjoying life with a wife and kids of his own.
It is not a rational world: In July 1985, one Anthony James Jenkins, a 19-year-old National Guardsman who’d been drinking and smoking dope that day and who reportedly had a Rambo complex, positioned himself along College Hill Road with a semi-automatic .243-caliber rifle he had just stolen at a nearby house.
It was a little after 5 p.m. that Wednesday. Elementary schoolteacher Debi Freeman was on her way home after picking and canning vegetables at her mother’s house. With her in the car were her sons Robert, 14, and James Neal, 4, and a friend of Robert’s.
Jenkins, knowing nothing of the people in the car, launched several bullets into the vehicle, hitting Debi in the face and taking the top of James Neal’s head off.
Debi Freeman, who was pregnant with her third child at the time, said, “I saw my beautiful son lying across the seat – his brains in my purse.” The 4-year-old died in another neighbor’s car on the way to the hospital.
It took several hours, teams of law enforcement officers, bloodhound tracking dogs and alert neighbors to catch Jenkins. Andy Waller, then head of Oxford Police Department’s tactical unit, remembers that Jenkins had walked quite a distance to stash the rifle instead of dropping it where he’d emptied it.
“I think he might have been planning to use it again,” Waller said.
Jenkins was convicted of capital murder, but one juror’s vote against the death penalty meant the killer could be sentenced only to life in prison, which before 1994 meant parole could be granted after serving a small percentage of his life expectancy.
He entered guilty pleas on three other charges – burglary of a residence, grand larceny and aggravated assault – and received another 35 years, 25 of which were to be consecutive to the life sentence.
The Mississippi Parole Board has twice denied Jenkins’ parole requests, but Freeman has learned that his case has been tapped for review again, probably in January.
Debi and Bobby Freeman are asking for the public’s help in trying to make sure their son’s murderer stays incarcerated.
Part of their motivation is their own family’s peace of mind, but Debi said she also wants to protect others – especially her students – from anything a paroled Jenkins might do.
“As long as he’s locked up, I can deal with it,” she said during an interview at Oxford Elementary, where she teaches. “But if he’s out, and I’m sitting here working with my kids, who’s going to keep him from coming in that door looking for me?”
People who were involved in the investigation and trial say Jenkins should be kept behind bars.
“I think it would be a slap at the justice system for this man to be paroled,” said Ed Hood, who was one of the jurors who voted for the death penalty. “I wish we’d at least had life without the possibility of parole.”
Lafayette County Sheriff Buddy East has tried to reach Parole Board members to talk about the case but has not heard back from them.
“That would be a tragedy if they let him out,” East said. “If they had to see that little boy the way we did, they wouldn’t even think of giving this guy parole.”
Folks in Lafayette County have extra reason to be concerned about the outcome of Jenkins’ parole hearing.
In 2009 the Parole Board freed Douglas Hodgkin after he served 21 years of a life sentence for the 1986 capital murder of Jean Elizabeth Gillies, a University of Mississippi student who was raped, sodomized and beaten before being strangled.
Anyone who would like to issue a comment on this case may write to the State Parole Board, 201 West Captiol, Suite 800 Jackson, MS 39201.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.