Jordan Neely had struggled with not being able to help his mother before she was killed in 2007 and was still grieving her death, an attorney for his family said Saturday on MSNBC while also demanding justice.
Neely, 30, died Monday after former U.S. Marine Daniel Penny put him in a chokehold on a New York City subway. Neely was unconscious when officers arrived and pronounced dead at a hospital. No charges have been filed against Penny.
At the time of his death, Neely was homeless and had mental illness, his family has said.
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Donte Mills, an attorney for Neely's family, told Al Sharpton on MSNBC's "PoliticsNation" that Neely "had demons" as a result of his mother's murder. Family members had been trying to get him help, he said.
"We all know people who are on the brink of going through something major, a catastrophe where they just can’t seem to get everything back together and that’s where he was," he said. "But he had a life that he was living and was reaching for."
Neely testified at trial for mother's killer
Neely was 14 when his mother, Christine Neely, was killed at their home. NJ.com reported that her body had been stuffed inside a suitcase and left on the Henry Hudson Parkway in New York.
Her boyfriend, Shawn Southerland, was convicted at a trial that Neely, then 18, testified in. He told the court that he tried to say goodbye to his mother before school on April 4, 2007, but Southerland refused to let him enter the bedroom, NJ.com reported.
Mills said Neely learned his mother had been killed the night before and Southerland had 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 their home. So, that's a lot to live with and he had troubles with that. But throughout his life, he was determined to make other people happy and that's what he did," Mills said.
"A part of that was entertaining. He really enjoyed Michael Jackson, he emulated him and his style," he continued.
Several friends have spoken out about Neely's love for performing on subways and around the city. His personification of Jackson was loved so much in his neighborhood that his neighbor, Kizzy Gonzalez, had Neely perform at her son's birthday party.
The bash was more than 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.
"That’s how great he was. He was always known as a great Michael Jackson performer, he took on the whole persona," she continued. "He would spend his little change to buy the outfits to match what Michael Jackson wore in certain songs and certain videos."
Gonzalez's cousin, Lance Clarke, of Brooklyn, knew Neely from the neighborhood and recalled seeing him in costume on numerous occasions.
"He used to have a full, pristine Michael Jackson outfit and he would perform in that outfit," he said in a phone call.
More coverage of Jordan Neely’s death
- Former Marine who put Jordan Neely into deadly chokehold on subway intended no harm, lawyers say
- Neely’s death reflects the inhumane consequences of being homeless, experts say
- What we know about the chokehold death of Jordan Neely on a NYC subway
- Black Americans say white vigilantism played a role in Neely’s death
- Neely’s death on NYC subway denounced by politicians as protesters demand justice
Neighbor says over the years Neely looked 'shattered' and 'tired'
Neely seemed to take a "downward spiral" over the years, Clarke said, and his beloved costumes would look tattered and torn. Eventually, Neely stopped dancing and would just "sit down on the train, not perform, not 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 shattered. He looked just tired ... just a look 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 seemed to be "in distress, and like he was going through hard times.
"Jordan was a troubled young man," she said. "I just know him to have suffered a very traumatic life and a very traumatic childhood."
Calls for justice and charges grow
Some witnesses told NBC New York that Neely was acting aggressively toward riders and threatened to harm them when he boarded the train Monday. Lawyers for Penny described a similar scene.
"When Mr. Neely began aggressively threatening Daniel Penny and the other passengers, Daniel, with the help of others, acted to protect themselves, until help arrived," the lawyers for Penny said in a statement Friday evening. "Daniel never intended to harm Mr. Neely and could not have foreseen his untimely death."
Cellphone video captured by one witness showed Penny on the ground with his arm locked 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.
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The city chief medical examiner's office said he "died from “compression of neck (chokehold)" and the manner was homicide.
Penny was taken into custody Monday, questioned by police and released. He has not been charged.
The incident sparked a national debate, with people denouncing vigilantism and some politicians demanding officials do more to address homelessness, mental health and violence on subways.
Attorney Lennon Edwards told Sharpton that what happened to Neely is "an open and shut case.
"There's no need to extend an investigation, so to speak, to determine that this man committed a killing and should have been arrested on the spot," he said.
Neither Gonzalez nor her cousin has fully processed Neely's death. Clarke said he has not viewed the video because he isn't "watching that boy get killed."
"Yes, someone on the train yelling is an uncomfortable feeling. But just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s a dangerous situation," he said. "Just because it makes you uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean it gives you the right to take a person’s life."
Gonzalez said she wants to see Penny arrested and charged. "The justice system should do what they're supposed to do," she said. "There are repercussions."