Civil rights activists vow to continue the fight to free John McNeil

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ARLINGTON, Va – The NAACP held a press conference Friday to send out a clear message that they will continue to fight for the release of an African-American businessman who they say has been wrongly incarcerated.

It comes just two days after the disappointing news that Georgia’s Attorney General is challenging a court’s ruling that John McNeil received an unfair trial and conviction.

The case, which has drawn national attention, centers on the life sentence given to McNeil in 2006 for killing an armed trespasser at his suburban metro Atlanta home.

Speaking at the conference, NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said, “If a black man in Georgia can’t defend his family” then it’s a disgrace to our Constitution. In his impassioned speech at a hotel in Arlington, Va., Jealous added, “I’m not sure whether we’ve ever had a case as clear cut as this.”

The case stems from events on December 6, 2005, when McNeil rushed home after receiving a call from his teenage son to say a man was lurking around in their backyard. When the boy went outside and asked the intruder to leave Brian Epp threatened him with a knife.

McNeil called 911 but when he arrived home, Epp, a white contractor, whom he had dealings with in the past, refused to leave his property. According to testimony, McNeil fired a warning shot before fatally killing Epp as he charged towards him with his hand in his pocket.

Flanked by NAACP officials, McNeil’s wife, Anita, told the room full of journalists, “I stand here today, because John is not a murderer.” She added, “He is a homeowner. He is a homeowner that lost his right to protect his home, his child. He is an American who lost the right to protect himself on his own property.”

McNeil’s supporters say he was acting under Georgia’s “castle doctrine” law, which allows anyone to use deadly force to defend themselves if an intruder enters the property of their home.

“John was confronted with a hostile aggressor,” and “he had every right to defend his home,” said William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP. “The case is emotional, but our emotions are in the facts.” The empirical data and evidence speaks for itself, added Barber.

Amid a growing chorus of complaints that the conviction is a miscarriage of justice, last month a Georgia Superior Court judge reviewed the case. She concluded that McNeil’s trial was “ineffective.”

In summary, 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.”

The judge granted McNeil petition for habeas corpus, which effectively meant he could have been a free man in 30 days, unless Georgia’s Attorney General, Sam Olens, decided to appeal the decision. The Attorney General had until October 26 to make an appeal.

On Wednesday, Olens chose to appeal the court ruling that granted John McNeil’s habeas corpus petition case. Olens wants the state’s highest court to reject the ruling.

The NAACP had sent the Attorney General a petition with the signatures of thousands of people who shared the organization’s position. The online petition now has around 23,000 signatures.

What makes the case unusual is that at the time two senior white police officers cleared McNeil of any charges and he was not arrested. McNeil’s white neighbors and eyewitnesses also spoke out on his behalf

However, nine months later the Cobb County district attorney decided to pursue the case and McNeil was charged with murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Speaking to journalists after the media conference, Georgia NAACP State Conference President Edward Dubose said the NAACP plans to redouble efforts to secure the release of McNeil, with planned rallies, legal assistance and a campaign to raise awareness.

The first major rally is scheduled to take place in Georgia in early November.

Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti