Family, activists demand release of man in prison for defending his property

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ATLANTA – The wife of a successful African-American businessman, who is serving a life sentence for killing a trespasser who was threatening his family, has said she will continue to fight for his release.

“It is hard to think he got convicted,” John McNeil’s wife, Anita, 46, told theGrio. “You expect the law to be on the side of the person defending themselves and not the aggressor.”

In fact, initially the law was on his side. Following an initial investigation, Kennesaw, Ga., detectives concluded in 2005 that John McNeil, 45, acted in self-defense.

The case relates to events on December 6, 2005, when McNeil received a distress call from his teenage son that a man was lurking around in their backyard.

“John called 911 and told the police he was on his way home,” said his wife, who is living with advanced stage cancer. According to testimony, the man, Brian Epp, a hired contractor with whom McNeil had past disagreements, had already pulled out a knife on McNeil’s 19-year-old son.

When McNeil returned home, Epp, who is white, refused to leave, despite being asked several times. McNeil and eye-witnesses testified that he fired a warning shot but when Epp charged towards him with his hand in his pocket he shot out in self-defense.

Despite the conclusion of Kennesaw police detectives that McNeil committed no crime, Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head decided nearly a year later to charge him with murder. As a result, McNeil was sentenced to life in prison in November 2006.

Ironically, Georgia’s “Castle Doctrine” permits individuals to defend themselves with a weapon if they feel threatened on their own property without having to wait for the situation to escalate.

The case has led activists to wonder why a family man, with no prior criminal convictions, could on the basis of the evidence and witness accounts, be sentenced to a life behind bars.

So much so that the NAACP is calling for a reexamination of the case, which they categorize as a blatant miscarriage of justice. “The events of this case can only be described as tragic,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous.

“But that tragedy has been compounded by Georgia’s decision to prosecute and convict a dedicated father for protecting his family and himself on his own property,” added Jealous.

In fact, those who have met John McNeil describe him as a mild-mannered, family man, who adored his wife and cherished his two sons.

“In one of the interviews I had with him he was choked up and emotional when talking about his wife,” said Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia State NAACP. “But more importantly, when you speak to him he comes across as very credible.”

In many ways, McNeil’s life was typical of a hard-working American. A graduate from North Carolina’s Elizabeth City State University, he was a businessman and community volunteer, whose main priority was taking care of his family.

Last week in Georgia, the NAACP, alongside other activists and local elected officials, addressed a crowd of journalists in a bid to reunite McNeil with his family. They also plan to hold a rally on the anniversary of his sentence in November.

“The John McNeil case is the best example of unequal justice, not just in Georgia, but in America,” said DuBose. “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, John McNeil filed a writ for Habeas Corpus relief arguing that his conviction was unsound. His petition is pending before the Baldwin County, Georgia Superior Court.

Mark Yurachek, John’s McNeil’s attorney, said, “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.”

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti