Freedom for Kennesaw Man Convicted of Murder
Prosecutors agreed to a plea deal that will end John McNeil's years-long legal fight.
His case pending before the state's highest court, the same court that in 2008 upheld his murder conviction, former Kennesaw resident John McNeil today pleaded guilty to a lesser crime of manslaughter to end his years-long legal fight.
McNeil was sentenced to seven years in prison and 13 years probation on the manslaughter charge, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was credited with seven years time served and was expected to be released immediately, according to the AJC.
McNeil's plea was entered just days after his wife and staunchest supporter died. Even as she waged her own personal battle with breast cancer, Anita McNeil maintained that her hubsand was only guilty of trying to protect his family on Dec. 6, 2005, when he shot and killed Brian Epp, the builder of his Kennesaw home.
According to court documents, McNeil’s teenage son called to say that there was a strange man in the backyard of the family's home who had pulled a knife on him. McNeil rushed home. While en route, he called 911 to tell authorities all that had happened, court records indicate. Despite pleas from the operator to remain in his vehicle, McNeil got out of his car with a gun. An argument with Epp ensued. McNeil fired a warning shot into the ground. Epp moved toward McNeil in the driveway. McNeil shot and killed him.
McNeil's supporters, who also included leaders of the nation's oldest civil rights organization, said he acted in self-defense. Police said the same thing initially and cleared McNeil of any charges. But nine months later, prosecutors charged him with murder, and a Cobb County jury convicted him and sentenced him to life in prison for aggravated assault and felony murder in 2006.
The case sparked debate about Georgia's version of the so-called stand your ground law, the defense being used in Florida in the February 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
Appeals were filed, heard and denied. The latest denial came last fall when Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens disagreed with a judge's ruling that McNeil should have been released because of multiple errors at trial.
Olens' decision sent the case back to the Georgia Supreme Court, where the case was pending until today's plea.
Though today's plea does not clear McNeil's name, the NAACP in a statement issued just before noon said that it does allow McNeil to put this part of his life behind him.
"While we would have preferred John to be exonerated based on self-defense," NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock said, "we are thankful that he can return home to be with his two sons and start his life over."
TEXT OF STATEMENT FROM THE NAACP