Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens will ask the state's highest court to reject a ruling that could have freed a Kennesaw man convicted of killing an armed trespasser in 2005.
Despite pleas from the nation's oldest civil rights organization not to do so, Olens Wednesday filed a notice of appeal in Baldwin County. A judge there ruled last month that John McNeil received "ineffective" counsel during his trial and suffered prejudice because jurors were not informed that they could acquit him "based on his justified defense of his son."
Olens had 30 days from the date of Judge Hulane E. George's Sept. 25 ruling to respond. If Olens had done nothing, McNeil could have been retried or released.
McNeil, who is black, is serving life in prison for aggravated assault and felony murder in the Dec. 6, 2005, shooting death of Brian Epp, who is white.
The racially-charged case has sparked debate about Georgia's version of the so-called stand your ground law, the defense being used in Florida in the February shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
"This is an emotional case," Olens said in a statement. "One side argues that Mr. McNeil was justified in defending himself when the victim threatened his son with a knife and then, upon Mr. McNeil’s return to his house, charged Mr. McNeil in Mr. McNeil’s front yard even after Mr. McNeil fired a warning shot and then shot the victim from less than three feet away.
"The other side argues that Mr. McNeil had a long-running feud with the victim, told the 911 dispatcher he was returning to his house for the purpose of “whip[ing the victim’s] a--,” ignored the 911 dispatcher’s direction to stay in his car and wait for police who were already en route, and was untruthful to police on the scene about the victim approaching him with a knife."
Police cleared McNeil of any charges in 2005, saying McNeil acted in self-defense. Nine months later, prosecutors charged McNeil with murder. A Cobb County jury convicted him. McNeil was sentenced to life in prison. He is serving that sentence at the Macon State Prison, according to state Corrections Department records.
The NAACP, which sent Olens a petition with the signatures of more than 18,000 people who shared the organization's position, said in a statement that it was disappointed with the attorney general's decision.
“John McNeil’s six-year-long nightmare should have ended this month,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said. “This appeal is a shameful attempt to stoke the flames of a case that should have never been opened in the first place. A man has a right to defend his family.”
In George's order last month, she said McNeil's defense attorney failed to tell the jury that McNeil had the right to defend his home, known as the defense of habitation.
Olens said he "will argue on appeal that it is unreasonable to think that a jury, after finding that Mr. McNeil did not act in self defense, would instead find that he was acting in defense of his home."
The NAACP has scheduled a press conference for 3 p.m. Friday in Arlington, Va., where the organization will hold its national board meeting.
"The NAACP," Jealous said, "will continue to work with Anita McNeil (John McNeil's wife) and our allies to secure John McNeil’s freedom."
WHAT ARE THEY SAYING?
- Click here to read Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens' statement.
- Click here to read the NAACP's statement.
- Open the PDF under the photos to read Baldwin County Superior Court Judge Hulane E. George's Sept. 25 ruling.
- NAACP to Olens: Don't Appeal Ruling in Kennesaw 'Self-Defense' Killing
- Poll: Was It Self-Defense?
- NAACP: Kennesaw Killing Was Self-Defense