The NAACP has joined forces with the wife of a Georgia man now serving a lifetime sentence for a shooting they and several witnesses all agree he only committed after his family was attacked on their own property by a raging and threatening trespasser.
John McNeil has been jailed at the Macon State Prison since November of 2006 in the shooting death of Brian Epp, a 19-year-old contractor the family once employed before engaging in a running feud with him which had recently grown even more heated when Epp pulled a knife on McNeil’s 19-year-old son.
From Day 1 of the December 6, 2005 deadly encounter, McNeil has maintained he only acted in self-defense after returning home to find Epp angrily stalking his property. After repeatedly asking him to leave, and even firing a warning shot, McNeil testified he only shot Epp after he charged towards him with his hands jammed in his pocket as if he were retrieving a weapon.
When Kennesaw police arrived, several witnesses supported McNeil’s self-defense version of events and officers initially declined to seek charges against the 45-year-old businessman and community volunteer with no history of an arrest record.
“John called 911 and told the police he was on his way home,” said his wife, Anita. “It is hard to think he got convicted. You expect the law to be on the side of the person defending themselves and not the aggressor.”
Indeed, the law seemed to be on McNeil’s side until Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head ingratiated himself with the case nearly a year to the date of its occurrence. Despite the steadfast recommendations of several investigating detectives, Head moved to criminally charge McNeil and in 2006 he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Almost immediately and in utter defiance of the decision to even formally charge McNeil, the Kennesaw Police Department refused to arrest McNeil, prompting Head to elicit and instruct the Cobb County Sheriff's Office to do so.
“The events of this case can only be described as tragic,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. "Yes, this is about a white DA who did the wrong thing… overrode two white detectives who did the right thing. We want to reunite John McNeil with his family.”
Raising Jealous’ and other activists' sense of urgency to gain McNeil’s release all the more are reports McNeil’s wife has been diagnosed with advanced stage cancer, which 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. “She will now be flying down here with her mayor, who has arranged special transportation so that she could see her husband for what may be one last time."
Equally infuriating McNeil’s supporters is the fact the state of Georgia legally allows individuals to defend themselves with a weapon if they feel threatened on their own property without having to wait for the situation to escalate. A predominantly white, conservative suburb Kennesaw also has a 30-year-old mandatory law requiring heads of households to own at least one firearm.
“If this can happen to John McNeil, then it can happen to any black man standing out here or standing anywhere in America, no matter how much good you've done or how right you are," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “The John McNeil case is the best example of unequal justice, not just in Georgia, but in America. Whether it is a black man trying to defend his property or he’s a victim of circumstance, there’s not justice.”
Earlier this year, McNeil filed a writ of Habeas Corpus relief contending that his conviction was completely unsubstantiated, a legal maneuver which is now pending before the Baldwin County Superior Court. A 2008 appeal filed on his behalf was denied when six of seven Georgia Supreme Court Justices ruled to uphold his conviction.
Meanwhile, the case has also sparked instant comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case and how the Castle Doctrine compares to the state of Florida’s incendiary ‘Stand Your Ground Laws.’ But in Jealous’ eyes, there are clear distinctions.
"'Stand Your Ground' laws are so broad that they allow people to racially profile with deadly force anywhere,” he said. “The basic difference is that the castle-doctrine law allows you to protect your home.' Stand your ground' allows you to appoint yourself vigilante-in-chief. And that's what Zimmerman (admitted shooter George) did."
"The heartbreaking thing,” Jealous added, “is, here we are in the 21st century on the eve of the 150th-anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation and we still find ourselves defending black men [and] black people's most basic rights to protect their own lives."
Chimed Mark Yurachek, McNeil’s attorney, “It’s fair to say we have made what we feel is a compelling case for everyone to believe at the minimum my client deserves new trial, if not a release.”
NAACP officials add they plan to hold a rally on the anniversary of McNeil’s sentence in early November. Organizers recently sent out a petition urging the Georgia Attorney General not to pursue an appeal should the judge rule to overturn McNeil’s verdict. To date, the petition has already amassed more than 12,000 signatures.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.