Gooding man who shot, killed son-in-law over spousal abuse sentenced to 12 years in prison

By Alex Riggins

Twin Falls Times-News

Jimmie E. O’Neal Sr. at his preliminary hearing Feb. 16 at the Gooding County Courthouse.
Jimmie E. O’Neal Sr. at his preliminary hearing Feb. 16 at the Gooding County Courthouse. Twin Falls Times-News

GOODING — For Jimmie O’Neal Sr., moving from California to Gooding in 2015 was supposed to be a dream retirement. It would bring him closer to his son and daughter, their spouses, and 12 of his 17 grandchildren. And it would allow him to fish, hunt and shoot guns with son-in-law Steven Michael Lawrence, a man he considered a son.

But, less than two years later, the dream turned to a nightmare on Dec. 28 when O’Neal, 62, pulled out a .38-special during an argument and fired a hollow-point bullet that ripped through Lawrence’s left arm and lodged in his right lung.

Paramedics rushed Lawrence to a hospital, where the 34-year-old was pronounced dead.

O’Neal pleaded guilty earlier this year to voluntary manslaughter via an Alford plea, meaning he maintained his innocence but admitted prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him. From the beginning, he told a consistent story: He shot Lawrence accidentally during an argument over Lawrence’s continued abuse of O’Neal’s daughter.

On Tuesday in Gooding County District Court, Prosecutor Matt Pember argued the shooting wasn’t accidental, but rather the result of O’Neal becoming enraged during the confrontation. Pember requested O’Neal spend three to 10 years in prison. O’Neal’s attorneys argued for probation, citing his clean prior record, his health problems, his low likelihood to reoffend and his inability to provide for his wife from prison.

District Judge Eric Wildman rejected both arguments, saying none of the mitigating factors offered by O’Neal’s defense team were enough to get him a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“In this case, you crossed a significant threshold,” Wildman told O’Neal. “Because of the egregiousness of the offense, this is not a probation case. The state’s suggestion is even too light.”

Instead, Wildman sentenced O’Neal to 12 years in prison with eligibility for parole after six years.

The sentence capped a tense, often emotional hearing that featured several outbursts, including from Lawrence’s mother, Vicky Zimmerman.

“Don’t say nothing to me,” she told O’Neal when he tried apologizing, her upstretched palm facing her son’s killer. “Sorry doesn’t cut it.”

Earlier in the hearing, the grieving mother told the court she hasn’t been sleeping since her son’s death, and there are days when she doesn’t get out of bed or eat.

“After I lost him,” Zimmerman said, “It just felt like I lost myself.”

Defense attorneys Brad Calbo and Stacey DePew called O’Neal and his wife, Pam, to testify about their reasons for moving to Gooding, O’Neal’s health problems and what would happen if he went to prison. Sending him to the penitentiary rather than the county jail would result in Pam losing the Social Security benefits she relies on, DePew argued.

Wildman acknowledged the negative impact a prison sentence would have on O’Neal’s wife but said he saw the case differently than the attorneys on both sides.

“You said this (incident of abuse) was the last straw,” Wildman told O’Neal. “You went over there to kick his ass, to commit violence. You bring a gun, not because it happens to be in your pocket, but because you know he carries a gun. You were fully prepared to engage in a shootout.”

O’Neal told the court that Lawrence was barricaded in his room and pointing a gun at him when he broke down the door, so O’Neal pulled his own gun that he accidentally fired when he tripped. He also testified that both men always carried guns.

“It should have come as no surprise to you if he did have a gun,” Wildman said. “Clearly, you were prepared to shoot it out with him. I reject the argument you didn’t go to do harm. You’re a 62-year-old man with health issues, and he knows Jiu Jitsu. I don’t know what you were planning on doing. So whether or not you tripped, your behavior was so reckless that the consequence of your actions should have come as no surprise.”

O’Neal dropped his head as Wildman issued the sentence, his hands folded in front of his face with both thumbs supporting his head. Earlier in the hearing, he acknowledged the shooting had torn apart his family.

“I’m ashamed of having to put my family through this,” O’Neal said. “The worst feeling is that I’ve lost my daughter, and possibly lost my grandchildren because of this.”

As bailiffs led him away, O’Neal was forced to grapple with losing his wife for the next six years, too.

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I love you.”