Jordan Neely struggled with not being able to help his mother before she was killed in 2007 and still mourns her death, an attorney for his family told MSNBC on Saturday, while calling for justice.
Neely, 30, died Monday after former US Marine Daniel Penny allegedly put him in a chokehold on a New York City subway. He was unconscious when officers arrived and was pronounced dead at a hospital. No charges were brought against Penny.
At the time of his death, Neely was homeless and suffering from a mental illness, his family said.
Donte Mills, an attorney for Neely’s family, told Al Sharpton on PoliticsNation that Neely “had demons” as a result of his mother’s murder. Family members tried to get him help, he said.
“We all know people who are about to go through something big, a disaster where they just can’t put it all back together, and that’s where he was,” he said. “But he had a life that he lived and reached for.”
Neely testified in court for the mother’s killer
Neely was 14 when his mother, Christine Neely, was killed in her home. NJ.com reported that her body had been stuffed into a suitcase and left on Henry Hudson Parkway in New York.
Her boyfriend, Shawn Southerland, was convicted in a trial at which Neely, then 18, testified. He told the court he tried to say goodbye to his mother outside of school on April 4, 2007, but Southerland refused to let him into the bedroom, NJ.com reported.
Mills said Neely learned his mother had been killed the night before and Southerland dumped her body while he was at school. Southerland was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the crime.
“He had to live with the fact that he left his mother dead in her house. So that’s a lot to live with, and he’s struggled with that. But all his life he was determined to make other people happy, and that’s what he did,” Mills said.
“Part of it was entertaining. He really liked Michael Jackson, he emulated him and his style,” he continued.
Several friends have spoken out about Neely’s penchant for performing on the subways and around town. His impersonation of Jackson was so popular in his neighborhood that his neighbor Kizzy Gonzalez invited Neely to perform at her son’s birthday party.
The party was over 20 years ago, but she remembered it clearly. “To see Jordan perform as Michael Jackson, my son really thought that was the real Michael Jackson,” she said in a phone call Saturday.
“He was that great. He was always known as a great Michael Jackson actor, he took on the whole personality,” she continued. “He would spend his loose change to buy the outfits that matched what Michael Jackson was wearing in certain songs and certain videos.”
Gonzalez’s Brooklyn cousin, Lance Clarke, knew Neely from the neighborhood and recalled seeing him in costume on numerous occasions.
“He used to have a complete, immaculate Michael Jackson outfit and performed in that outfit,” he said in a phone call.
More coverage of Jordan Neely’s death
Neighbor says Neely has looked “shaken up” and “tired” over the years
Neely seemed to have taken a “downward spiral” over the years, Clarke said, and his beloved costumes would look tattered and torn. Eventually, Neely stopped dancing and would just “get on the train, don’t perform, don’t ask for money.”
On several occasions, Clarke said he would tell Neely to get off the train and wait outside his apartment building while he gave him food and clothing.
“He just looked shaken. He just looked tired… just an expression of desperation and lack of hope,” he said.
Gonzalez said the Neely she knew was always “soft-spoken” but “troubled.” The last time she saw him was about a year ago. She said he appears “in distress and like he’s going through tough times.”
“Jordan was a concerned young man,” she said. “All I know is that he had a very traumatic life and a very traumatic childhood.”
Calls for justice and accusations increase
Some witnesses told NBC New York that Neely allegedly acted aggressively toward passengers and threatened to harm them as he boarded the train Monday. Penny’s attorneys described a similar scene.
“When Mr. Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel acted with the help of others to protect himself until help arrived,” Penny’s attorneys said in a statement Friday night. “Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death.”
Cell phone video captured by a witness showed Penny on the floor with his arm around Neely’s neck. The witness, Juan Alberto Vazquez, told NBC New York that Neely was held in the chokehold position for about 15 minutes.
The city’s chief medical officer’s office said he died “from compression of the neck (stranglehold)” and the manner was manslaughter.
Penny was taken into custody on Monday, questioned by the police and then released. He wasn’t charged.
The incident sparked a nationwide debate, with people denouncing vigilantism and some politicians calling for officials to do more to address homelessness, mental health and violence on subways.
Attorney Lennon Edwards told Sharpton that what happened to Neely was “an open and closed case.”
“There is virtually no need to expand an investigation to find that this man committed murder and should have been arrested on the spot,” he said.
Neither Gonzalez nor her cousin have fully processed Neely’s death. Clarke said he didn’t watch the video because he’s not “watching this boy get killed.”
“Yes, someone on the train yelling is an uncomfortable feeling. But just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s a dangerous situation,” he said. “Just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean it gives you the right to take a person’s life.”
Gonzalez said she wanted Penny arrested and charged. “The justice system should do what it’s supposed to do,” she said. “There are repercussions.”