After serving nearly seven years of a lifetime sentence, supporters of John McNeil are hopeful he could be home by Thanksgiving following a judge’s ruling earlier this week that he was the victim of grossly inadequate counsel during his initial trial.
Baldwin County Judge Hulane E. George cited a whole slew of errors and omissions in granting McNeil’s appeal request, the most glaring of which was jurors were never told of his right to protect himself and his then-teenage son from a trespasser threatening them with a deadly weapon on their own property.
All of those actions, according to George, created and fostered an atmosphere that greatly prejudiced the jury. “The Court therefore concludes that counsel’s error was both significant and impactful upon McNeil’s case, to the point where it was prejudiced,” George wrote in her summation. “The prejudice McNeil suffered from the jury not being instructed that he could be acquitted, based on his justified defense of his son, is manifest.”
McNeil family attorney Mark Yurachek later told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution State Attorney General Sam Olens will essentially now have 30 days to appeal the ruling or immediately release his client.
“This is the first step towards righting the wrong that Cobb County made when it prosecuted a husband and a father for defending his family on his own property,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Jealous. “John has spent years in prison, separated from the family he protected, because a district attorney running for reelection decided to prosecute John 270 days after two police detectives ruled his case self-defense.”
A taunting Brian Epp, 19, was shot to death just before Christmas in 2005 after openly roaming the family’s property and ignoring repeated pleas to peacefully leave the grounds.
Initially, police cleared McNeil of all wrongdoing after several eyewitnesses stepped forward to lend credence to his claims of self-defense and support his version he only shot Epp after he launched at him while his hands were jammed in his pockets as if he was retrieving a weapon.
A contractor by trade, Epp once worked for the family before engaging in a running feud with them. On the day in question, witnesses told police McNeil rushed home to find Epp testily stalking his property and waving a knife in the direction of his son.
In spite of all those revelations, nearly a year after the incident Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head ignored then overruled investigator’s findings and moved to criminally charge McNeil with murder.
So outraged were Kennesaw police over his decision, detectives steadfastly refused to arrest McNeil, an act that Head responded to by having the Cobb County Sheriff's Office do so.
“The John McNeil case is the best example of unequal justice, not just in Georgia but in America,” said the Rev. William Barber, NAACP national board member and president of the group's North Carolina chapter. “Whether it is a black man trying to defend his property or he’s a victim of circumstance, there’s not justice. If this can happen to John McNeil, then it can happen to any black man standing out here or standing anywhere in America.”
A prayerful Anita McNeil added of her spouse, “it’s hard to think he got convicted. You expect the law to be on the side of the person defending themselves and not the aggressor. John called 911 and told the police he was on his way home. He even fired a warning shot in the air.”
Yurachek also took time to highlight other potentially key elements of the case that the jury was never made aware of, including Epp’s felony drug conviction history and the fact marijuana was found in his car on the day of the shooting.
NAACP spokesperson Derek Turner highlighted the fact that the organization has already sent Olens a petition with nearly 15,000 signatures urging him and the state not to pursue an appeal in the case.
“It’s time to bring John McNeil home,” said Jealous. “Justice needs and must be served.”
Jealous and other activists' sense of urgency has been raised all the more by reports McNeil’s wife has been diagnosed with advanced stage cancer that has prevented her from visiting her husband for the last two years. McNeil's mother also died just last month.
"It is very possible that John McNeil's wife could die while he's still trying to clear his name,” said Jealous. “This family doesn’t deserve that.”
Meanwhile, the case has also sparked instant comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case in Florida and how Georgia’s Castle Doctrine laws compare to that state’s controversial ‘Stand your ground’ laws. Currently, Castle Doctrine allows citizens in their homes, cars and workplaces the right to protect themselves, other people and their property by force.
You can count Jealous among those who senses the distinctions between one of the two state’s signature law. "'Stand Your Ground' is so broad they allow people to racially profile with deadly force anywhere whereas Castle-doctrine simply allows you to protect your home,” he said. “'Stand your ground' allows you to appoint yourself vigilante-in-chief… and that's what George Zimmerman did in the senseless shooting of Trayvon Martin.”
"Something is wrong here,” said Barber. “Morally wrong, legally wrong. and the only thing that will make it right is for the state of Georgia to free John McNeil.”
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.