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
John McNeil, the Georgia man arrested and sentenced to life for defending his own home, agreed to a plea bargain and a charge of voluntary manslaughter in court today. He was released from prison today.
The NAACP has been involved in this case on the state, local and national levels for years. NAACP leaders made the following statements in reaction to his release:
“Today John McNeil walks out of prison a free man, though the damage has been done,” stated NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock. “While we would have preferred John to be exonerated based on self-defense, we are thankful that he can return home to be with his two sons and start his life over. His release today is a bittersweet victory because he also returns home in sorrow following the recent death of his loving wife Anita who fought for his release until her last breath."
“The court’s decision is an acknowledgement that John McNeil was convicted in error, and that error took far too long to be rectified,” stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “No man – regardless of color – should have to go through such an ordeal. While the reduced charge is still too harsh, we are glad that he will be able to return home to his children.”
“On the eve of Lent, and the 104th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP, which began as an organization fighting against the false and unjust convictions of African-American men, the Georgia criminal justice system has engaged in a kind of partial repentance,” stated NAACP North Carolina State Conference President Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. “While John pleaded to a lesser charge, the criminal justice system in Georgia and America still remains guilty of the greater charge of continuing disparities and inequities in the sentencing, convictions and imprisonment of African-Americans, minorities and poor whites. While we are happy that John is free, we remain ever committed to continue the work of making our judicial system fair for all.”
Barber continued: “The NAACP does not endorse violence, and none of us, especially John and his family, are happy about the loss of life. We pray for Epp's family.
“The George State Conference NAACP is relieved that John McNeil is free,” stated NAACP Georgia State Conference President Edward Dubose. “It is clearly long overdue, considering that John McNeil’s only crime is defending his son and home while being black. While we celebrate John’s freedom we are equally saddened that Anita McNeil’s death occurred before John could walk free. Now that John is free we are committed to completely clearing his name. We must put an end to this unequal justice system that forces African Americans to take guilty pleas even when they are innocent.”
In 2006, McNeil was convicted for shooting Brian Epp on his property after Mr. Epp threatened his son with a box cutter and charged at John, with the weapon in his pocket. Two white investigating officers concluded that McNeil did not commit a crime, but 294 days after the incident McNeil was charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison.
On September, 25th, 2012 a Georgia Superior Court Judge granted McNeil’s petition for habeas corpus based on ineffective counsel, noting that, among other things, John’s trial attorney, “failed to request charges based on the theories of defense of habitation and/or defense of property.” But Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens appealed the ruling and McNeil remains in prison. After today’s plea bargain, McNeil will remain on parole for 14 years.
McNeil’s wife Anita McNeil, who has been outspoken in support of her husband and criticism of his imprisonment, passed away earlier this month.
The campaign for John McNeil’s freedom was started by his local NAACP branch in Wilson, NC, which convinced the North Carolina NAACP, Georgia NAACP State Conference, Cobb County NAACP and national NAACP to take up the fight.