‘This is still happening today’: the story of a battered wife accused of murder

KFerret Sally, a new Netflix true-crime docuseries, begins as many in the genre do: with a death and the tape of a 911 call. We hear Sally McNeil’s voice, shaky but steady, answering the operator in Oceanside, California with clipped statements: she just shot her husband because he hit her. The crying voice in the background is her daughter. Her husband of eight years, bodybuilding champion Ray McNeil, is on the ground but still breathing.

Killer Sally never disputes these facts, nor the fact that Sally shot Ray twice—once in the abdomen, once in the face—with a gun she had bought, killing him on Valentine’s Day 1995. The three-part series, directed by Nanette Burstein (Hillary) is less an investigation of what happened that night than a detailed analysis of how the justice system, and the media at large, handled McNeil’s case—as a member of the misunderstood subculture of bodybuilding, as a victim of long-term abuse in the home, as a muscular, undeniably buff woman who prosecutors claimed was “too strong to be beaten”.

That handling was, unsurprisingly, not sensitive. McNeil was arrested and charged with murder. Her two children, nine and 11 at the time, were sent to a shelter, then across the country to live with their grandmother in McNeil’s hometown of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The press labeled Sally McNeil, a former Marine and amateur bodybuilder who moonlighted as a direct-to-home video wrestler, the “pumped-up princess,” a “brawny chick.”

Her case attracted national attention on the heels of several high-profile trials involving domestic violence and/or the cultural specter of the “angry woman”: the OJ Simpson trial in 1995, in which Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his wife Nicole Brown. Simpson, whom he physically abused; Tonya Harding’s connection to the assault on rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994; Lorena Bobbitt’s 1994 trial for cutting off her abusive husband’s penis. All three have been the subject of contemporary cultural re-examinations – the Simpson trial in Ezra Edelman’s fantastic 2016 docu-series OJ: Made in America, Harding in the 2018 film I, Tonya and Bobbitt in the 2019 Amazon series Lorena.

“I have no interest in gratuitous true crime,” said Burstein, who also directed a 2014 episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 on Harding, responding to concerns about the genre’s tendency to exploit rather than explore. McNeil’s case, like the Harding and Simpson trials and other high-profile crime stories of the 1990s, serves as a prism for larger societal issues then and now. “That’s what really attracted me to the story — it was really about domestic violence and it’s about gender roles,” she said.

“It’s really about other women, because this is still happening today” with many examples of criminalized and jailed abuse survivors claiming self-defense. Although there is no official tracking of the degree of this criminalization, evidence suggests that domestic violence contributes to incarceration in direct and indirect ways; a 2016 study by the Vera Institute of Justice found that 77% of women in US prisons survived intimate partner violence.

Killer Sally thus offers McNeil a familiar contemporary revision, examining how the justice system was unprepared for and unsympathetic to the insidious effects of persistent domestic abuse, particularly from a woman who appeared physically strong. How a prosecution team was able to successfully turn her self-defense arguments and inconsistencies into a conviction for second-degree murder, with a sentence of 19 years to life. How violence in close relationships harbors, degrades and perpetuates is told largely in McNeil’s own words in several sit-down interviews.

Sally McNeil
Sally McNeil Image: Netflix

The three episodes trace, mostly chronologically, Sally McNeil’s simultaneous paths into amateur bodybuilding in the 1980s and into a whirlwind romance with Ray McNeil. Beaten by both her stepfather and her first husband, Sally found respite through sports—diving, cross-country skiing—and, in her 20s, bodybuilding. She met Ray McNeil at a gym, which she describes as “lust at first sight”. On the outside, the two were a photogenic bodybuilding power couple, standing out from the crowd—interracial (Sally is white, Ray was black), clad in tight gym gear, a parade of muscles, both passionate about the pursuit of aesthetic idealism through intense training and control of the human body.

The series takes its name from Sally’s stage name, which she used as a means of earning money to support Ray’s fledgling professional career and the illicit “supplements”—steroids—required to remain competitive. Sally could earn up to $300 an hour doing so-called “muscle prostitution,” where she would wrestle men in hotel rooms or on mail-order videos. In 1993, she says, she spent $24,000 from her own career, seedy and stigmatized as it was, on Ray’s bodybuilding pursuits.

The financial strain coincided with increasing volatility at home. McNeil and her two now-grown children, Shantina and John, recall routine abuse by Ray, which began shortly after McNeil’s wedding in 1987. Three days into their marriage, she says, Ray punched her in the face and busted her lip. Sally says that Ray, who had at least 100 kg of muscle on her, often choked her; Shantina remembers the sound of her mother gasping for air. Ray once broke Sally’s nose in front of his children; she filed a report that went nowhere after Ray beat her until she promised to resign. In a devastating scene from the police interrogation room the night after Ray’s death, McNeil’s children try to reassure her that everything will be all right – “if you thought [he] would kill you then it’s self-defense,” says John, a fourth-grader.

The final hour of the series focuses on McNeil’s 1996 trial, including the prosecution’s argument that McNeil’s reloading of the gun before the second shot showed premeditation. “You look at a case like this, and you have to wonder about somebody’s innocence or guilt, just like the jury has to wonder about this. So it’s important to present the strong case that the prosecution made,” Burstein said. “But some of that also pointed out how insane some of the arguments were, that she couldn’t possibly have been a victim of being too strong. Which is absurd.”

Sally McNeil
Sally McNeil Image: Netflix

Evidence deemed admissible in court, especially after McNeil testified in an attempt to explain her own story, included the cover of a video she made in character as a wrestler – “Killer Sally” with the same shotgun she would later use against Ray. “It wasn’t evidence, and yet it was probably one of the more damaging things presented to the jury,” Burstein said. “The trauma that she and her children had and how to react in those situations were not sensitively discussed [in the trial]” and was “definitely undermined by the prosecutor”.

Jurors’ subjective processing based on sexist biases, like the idea that Sally couldn’t be a battered woman because she (in costume) was a muscular, man-destroying killer, is “not just exclusive to the ’90s or earlier,” Burstein said. “That’s still the case today, unfortunately.”

Ultimately, as in many other cases, McNeil’s legal defense of so-called “battered woman syndrome,” now understood as a subset of intimate partner violence post-traumatic stress disorder, did not work. She served almost 25 years in prison. The final act of the series plays as a poignant postscript to a life and family still in flux, in recovery – haunted by cycles of abuse and violence and strained relationships exacerbated by a criminal justice system; looking forward to what could and should be a better future.

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