White mayor petitions for release of black man sentenced to life behind bars

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The mayor of Wilson, N.C. has reached out to the governor of Georgia in a bid to help secure the release of a black businessman who is serving a life sentence for killing a trespasser who was threatening his family.

In an unprecedented move, Mayor Bruce Rose, who is white, has written a letter to Governor Nathan Deal to draw attention to the plight of John McNeil, who is a Wilson, North Carolina, native. Rose said McNeil’s situation touched his heart and he now feels compelled to petition for his release.

Last week, Rose alongside members of the McNeil family flew into Georgia to visit McNeil at Macon State Prison, a maximum security jail. This week, Rose made the decision to write to Gov. Nathan Deal to give him background information on the case and ask for assistance.

Rose stated in his letter he does not believe McNeil was guilty of a crime. “I have read the entire trial transcript and I believe it’s clear that John only acted to protect his family,” Rose wrote.

The case relates to events on December 6, 2005, when McNeil received a call from his 19-year-old son that a man was lurking around in the backyard of their Georgia home.

When McNeil returned, Brian Epp, a hired contractor with whom McNeil had past disagreements, refused to leave his property, despite being asked several times. McNeil and eye-witnesses testified that he fired a warning shot but when Epp, who is white, charged towards him with his hand in his pocket, he shot the contractor in self-defense.

Initially, Kennesaw police detectives concluded that McNeil had committed no crime but close to a year later, District Attorney Pat Head, decided to charge him with murder. McNeil was sentenced to life in prison in November 2006.

“I can honestly say that I have never met a more wonderful young man in my life as John McNeil,” the letter stated. “He holds no grudges toward anyone. His mother passed away a few weeks ago and his wife is in the midst of an aggressive battle with breast cancer. John’s wife and children need him home.”

Andrew Taylor, political science professor at North Carolina State University, said in an interview with The Wilson Times that it is unusual for a mayor of a city takes up a case. “That doesn’t happen very often,” Taylor said. “That could be very helpful to the man who is imprisoned.”

“The John McNeil case is unique in the Southern and American criminal justice system,” said Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, in an interview with theGrio. “You just can’t find a case where a black man on his property shoots a white armed aggressor and the black man is defended by two senior white detectives, white eyewitnesses, a black female Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, all who challenge the conclusion of and prosecution by a white DA.”

“John McNeil has lived right, given back to society right, and reluctantly and with reservation and moral restraint defended himself and his teenage son right only after doing everything not to use deadly force and yet the DA chose to do him wrong and prosecute and convict John for life. This is wrong unjust and a tragic miscarriage of justice.”

The NAACP, along with other activists and local elected officials, are all calling for a reexamination of the case.

This year, John McNeil filed a writ for Habeas Corpus relief, arguing that his conviction lacked sufficient evidence. His petition is pending before the Baldwin County, Georgia Superior Court.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti