Black businessman serving life sentence could go free this month

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GEORGIA – An African-American businessman, who is serving a life sentence for what activists say is a tragic miscarriage of justice, could be free by the end of October.

John McNeil has been sitting in jail for six years for killing a trespasser who was threatening his family. Now, a Georgia Superior Court judge has granted McNeil’s petition for habeas corpus in the case.

The court’s decision concludes that McNeil received ineffective counsel during his trial when his attorney, among other things, “failed to request charges based on the theories of defense of habitation and/or defense of property.”

In layman’s terms, this effectively means he could be released in 30 days, unless Georgia’s Attorney General decides to appeal the decision. The NAACP has sent out a petition urging the Attorney General, Sam Olens, not to pursue an appeal in the case. The petition already has around 22,000 signatures.

“I know we still have a journey in front of us, but today we smile, for we have won,” said McNeil’s wife Anita, who recently visited her husband for the first time in nearly two years, because she has cancer.

“We are thankful first to God and then to the judge,” she added. “She looked at the case and saw it for what it is. We will continue our fight and we won’t stop until we have freedom for John.”

“This is the first step towards righting the wrong the Cobb County made when it prosecuted a father for defending his family on his own property,” said NAACP President and CEO, Benjamin Todd Jealous. “We are urging the state to not appeal this decision.”

The case relates to events on December 6, 2005, when McNeil killed Brian Epp, a hired contractor with whom he had past disagreements. Epp was lurking around the family’s Kennesaw, Ga, home and had already pulled out a knife on McNeil’s teenage son.

According to testimony, 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 investigating officers’ conclusion that McNeil did not commit a crime, 274 days later, Cobb County District Attorney charged McNeil with murder. During the trial, the detectives who investigated the shooting both testified on behalf of John McNeil.

“We recognize that this is the first of many steps in the journey towards reuniting John McNeil with his family,” said Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia State NAACP. “We are confident that the decision by the court will serve as a battle cry for all people of good will throughout the state and the country in calling for Georgia to free John McNeil.”

“We hope the state of Georgia will see the error of its way and admit they have wrongfully convicted a good man who only engaged in justified self-defense,” said Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti