John McNeil was jailed and eventually convicted of murder; she moved back to the North Carolina town where the high school lovers grew up, unable to cope with the memories that haunted her. Now, she’s fighting breast cancer that has spread to her bones and hopes a judge’s ruling could set her husband free.
Georgia has a so-called Stand Your Ground law on the books that allows people to use deadly force if their lives are in danger. But John McNeil was charged anyway, nine months after the shooting. The case has since prompted calls from the NAACP and other groups for such laws to apply to all citizens, regardless of race. McNeil is black, and the man he shot was white. But white neighbors also testified about being intimidated by the man, who built their houses.
“We’re standing strong not only for John, but also for any homeowner who should have the right to protect himself and any parents who should have the right to protect their child,” Anita McNeil said in an interview at a friend’s home.
A Georgia judge ruled last month in favor of a request to release John McNeil, who’s serving a life sentence for the 2005 killing of Brian Epp, who had built what the McNeils believed was their dream home.
John McNeil, now 46, wasn’t charged immediately. Police said he was defending himself, his home and his son, La’Ron, who called his father after seeing Epp in the backyard. The Cobb County prosecutor eventually pursued charges, leading to McNeil’s conviction.
The ruling gave Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens 30 days to decide whether to appeal to Georgia’s Supreme Court. Otherwise, McNeil could be released by the end of October. The office of Cobb County District Attorney Pat Head referred questions to Olens, whose office declined comment. Epp’s widow also didn’t return a phone call.
In May, Head told The Associated Press that the case is a reminder of the potential pitfalls of self-defense arguments.
“Just because someone hits you in the face doesn’t mean you pull a .45 and shoot him in the head,” he said. “It can be hard to prove it’s self-defense because the jury puts themselves in the same footing as anybody else.”
The “stand your ground” law that advocates say should protect McNeil is similar to a law cited by authorities who initially declined to charge neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, who was unarmed. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, told police he shot Martin, who was black, in self-defense during a scuffle. The decision by police to not charge him sparked protests across the nation. Prosecutors ultimately charged him with second-degree murder; Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty.
McNeil never denied shooting Epp. He told police in Kennesaw that Epp was belligerent and had threatened his son with a knife just before the shooting. A witness testified that Epp came onto McNeil’s driveway, ignored a warning shot and charged at McNeil, who then fired a fatal shot. McNeil’s attorney says the men were so close at that point that Epp’s body touched McNeil’s as he fell.
The judge cited multiple errors at trial, including that the jury was not properly instructed on a person’s right to use force to defend himself, his home or another person from violent attack.
“We are very hopeful that people in a position of power now will look at this, will look at the people who have stood on John’s side, and will do a form of repentance and say enough is enough. Let this man come home and be with his wife,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Among McNeil’s supporters is Wilson Mayor Bruce Rose, who spoke at a prayer rally Thursday for McNeil and wrote a letter to Olens, asking him to drop the case.
“Nothing we can do now will give John the past six years back with his family,” Rose wrote. “But you can make a decision that will help reunite them now.”
Anita McNeil hides her balding head, the result of chemotherapy, under a baseball cap, and her eyes well up with tears when she discusses her health. Still, she doesn’t like to talk about this second fight with breast cancer. Her doctor “treats me so that I can have longevity,” she said, declining to talk about a specific prognosis. “If it means being treated forever, that’s what we’ll do.”
One of the few times she smiles is when she talks about visiting her husband last month. They had three hours together, hardly enough time to make up for the 18 months that had passed since their last visit.
“We were able to hug and touch. We were very close and we were talking. We were able to smile and share each other’s energy,” she said.
In the years since McNeil was charged, his mother has died. The six-bedroom, three-story house where she had hoped to entertain nieces, nephews and other family went into foreclosure. Anita McNeil holds onto her faith that she and her husband will be back together before cancer claims her life _ a faith that believes God can unlock jail doors.
“At some point, you just can’t keep taking from people when you’ve done wrong,” Barber said. “Let him come back. Let him contribute to society. Let him be able to embrace his wife. And let all of us learn from this and be better.”